Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Green House Effect

Together with my group mate Marie Lim, I spent seven months on a feature writing project called the Green House Effect. It is a news package about the rising number of environmentally friendly buildings in Singapore. The original package is 10,300 words long and its based on interviews with 40-50 architects, engineers, scientists, government officials and ordinary Singaporeans. About half the package is selected for publishing on the Saturday Special Report of the Straits Times. Here is the published version, with additional reporting and a tightened text. My deepest appreciation to my project supervisor Ms Debbie Goh.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My swan song for the Chronicle

I wrote a story about my recent trip to Myanmar. My last story for the Nanyang Chronicle before I graduate. Released on the stands today, 20 Feb, 2012. 

Some parts were edited away though. Publishing my original draft here:

Water everywhere, but not a drop safe to drink 

So clear are the waters of Myanmar’s Inle Lake that a parallel universe seemed to exist
underneath, mirroring the floating bamboo villages, drifting islands, and fishing boats on its
still surface. But a hidden danger lurks beneath: Pollution seeping into lake waters, a source
of life for its 20,000 inhabitants.

Arriving on the lake on January 2 is a NTU team bringing technology and water-testing
expertise from Singapore, a country once almost completely reliant on imported water but
renowned for water technologies in the region today.

Leading the project is Dr Khin Lay Swe from Myanmar’s Yezin Agricultural University
(YAU). Under the guidance of associate professor Tan Soon Keat , she had spent six
months at the Nanyang Environmental and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) under the
Lien Environmental Fellowship to improve water conditions at the lake.

"People lack access to safe water and sanitation,” said Dr Khin. “The lake has been polluted
by human waste, agrochemicals and other contaminants.”

The trip was organised by The Lien Foundation - NTU Environmental Endeavour (EE2). A
brainchild of Lien Foundation and NTU, EE2 is strategically located within NEWRI and seeks
to improve the living conditions of Asia’s developing communities in the areas of water,
sanitation and renewable energy.

Their task is an urgent one as many developing countries today face water problems. A
United Nations resolution in 2010 expressed concern that 884 million people lack access to
safe drinking water. In addition, more than 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation

EE2’s projects cover six countries: India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Unlike most overseas volunteer trips, EE2 focuses on helping developing communities
help themselves. Instead of ad-hoc visits, technological knowledge is transferred to local
communities over the long-term to ensure ownership, viability, and pride.

One of the students, 23-year-old Lam Wan Yee, said: “The projects are all run and driven by
the local experts, who come to Singapore under the fellowship programme to develop their
solutions under the guidance of NTU professors.”

Lam, a fourth-year student from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE),
was joined by three other schoolmates. Among them were Kaung Set Zaw and Khin Pyay
Thu, both Myanmar students, helping to bridge the language and cultural barrier between
the EE2 team and the local people.

For seven days, students from NTU conducted field tests, inspected pipes and taught YAU
students to use water testing equipment. Moving around villages on Inle Lake is similar to
travelling in Venice – the entire team travels by boat as it is impossible to walk from house to

“The lake is so huge, I have nearly mistaken it as a sea,” said Loy Yoongshin, final-year
student at CEE. “Villagers depend on the lake for a living. They fish, they plant tomatoes on
floating agriculture farm, and they row boats to travel around.”

The lake, nearly 50 square kilometres in size, makes building a supply of clean water an

uphill task. Over time, agricultural fertilisers from the thriving tomato farms have seeped
into lake waters. Coupled with poor sanitation, this means that raw lake wate is unsafe for

“The water are everywhere around people in the lake but not a drop is safe to drink,”
said team member Pyay Thu, third-year student at the School of Civil and Environmental

Villagers turn to water sources on the mountains surrounding the lake. However, the pipes
often leak and are unprotected from contamination. Water tanks, already limited in number,
are not safe for drinking too.

Thye Yoke Pean, the project manager from EE2, hopes that their efforts can “restore the
quality of the lake and preserve its beauty.”

“It’s easier said than done,” she said. “We need to build proper toilets, introducing a waste
management system and reduce the use of fertiliser and pesticides.”

Working with local authorities is key to success, according to Pyay Thu.

“Dr Khin arranged meetings with the community leaders and minister to garner support for
project,” said the 24-year-old. “The response was overwhelming.”

For Loy, the trip was “empowering, enriching and an eye opener.”

Even after returning from Myanmar, she still helping EE2 with the Inle lake project.

“We are living in good conditions but many people out there are struggling to have clean
drinking water,” the 22-year-old said. “The world is never fair, but we can play our part to
care and lend a hand for others.”

A spiked article

This is a story I wrote back in August 2010. It was submitted to the Nanyang Chronicle, ran into several problems, postponed for a later date but I eventually spiked it myself. It lay forgotten in a desktop folder until last night, I chanced upon it. I'm publishing it here just in case I will never remember it again.

(Above) The "pillars of fire" at Brad Pitt's Alma Mater, University of Missouri. The second-most photographed site in Missouri is what remained of an old school hall that burnt down in the 19th century. Today its a symbol of the world's oldest journalism school and the university's values. Photo by Xue Jianyue.

Into the heart of America

CORN fields, grass prairies and barbecued ribs. These memories return back, like a recurring dream, after I left the American midwest state of Missouri.

I seemed to have forgotten that early this year, a freezing winter greeted my arrival in Kansas city. The entire land was covered in thick, white snow.

My first footprints, along with my impressions of America, were knee-deep in the bitter cold. I wondered how could this be the land which inspired the Wizard of Oz.

For the next five months, I would visit three main cities within this state- Kansas City, Columbia and St Louis City.

I could not hide my excitement. After all, this is the place where I could find the famed St Louis ribs, try out American farm life, and study in the alma mater of Hollywood star Brad Pitt, the Missouri School of Journalism.

Food and hidden menus

Cold weather has enlarged my appetite. As I was to discover, the Midwest had fabulous food like the St Louis style barbecued ribs. Even Starbucks coffee were sold at half of Singapore’s price.

Not to mention authentic Mexican food, cooked by Hispanic immigrants from the south of US. They were surprisingly similar to Asian food, with rice, beans and spices.

I had to be cautious with Chinese food though, for the Americanised version in many restaurants cannot compare to those back home.

Fortunately, as I was to learn from some Singaporean friends living in the US, there are “hidden menus” in Chinese restaurants, recited from memory by waitresses who meet a Chinese customer once in a while.

The friendliness of Americans also brought warmth to my heart. Upon arrival, I was treated to fabulous food at Shakesphere’s Pizza by my exchange coordinator in Columbia.

In Missouri, state laws require bars to close at 1am. But Americans make it up with house parties, where you get to socialise, drink and talk about life.

Your best shot at fame

For more than four months, I stayed at the small town of Columbia, studying at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU)

Despite its relative isolation, it is home to the world’s first journalism school and the birthplace of photojournalism.

Students are trained using the “Missouri Method”, which emphasizes learning through hands-on work, turning the small town of 100,000 into their arena.

As a result, Columbia is said to have the most number of journalists per capita where everyone living here has been photographed. Chances are, if you stay there long enough, you will end up in a newspaper even as an ordinary person.

The place also has a beautiful campus. An iconic landmark, Pillars of Fire, is what remained of an old school hall that burned down in the 19th century. It is said to be the second-most photographed place in the whole state and a symbol of the University’s values.

Perhaps the school’s most famous alumni is Brad Pitt, the Hollywood actor. Unknown to many, Pitt left barely 2 weeks to graduation in 1982, flying off to Los Angeles to take acting lessons.

To my amusement, many students in MU told me that they are still trying to get him back to graduate.

In the countryside

When spring finally blossomed in Missouri, corn fields, baseball matches and slippers returned.

An American friend, William Aitch, drove me and a few other fellow exchange students to his home in the Midwest countryside.

I was driven past vast tracts of land, populated by more cows then men. Corn fields stretched out aimlessly into the horizon, where I could occasionally make out an outline of a farmhouse.

William would rumble his four-wheeler on rocky paths through the forest. We, his passengers, would cling on to any part of the car for dear life, until he comes to a sudden stop at a lake for fishing.

I also tried out a favourite American hobby - climbing trees. On the farmland, I got to mix with cows and horses which roam within fenced boundaries.

There is hardly any police, and hardly any crime. It is a carefree place where neighbours, though living far apart, help each other in need.

Not just farms and cows

My last weeks in Missouri were spent in St Louis, the gateway of the Midwest.

I went up the famed Gateway Arch, built as a monument to the Westward expansion of the United States. Built in 1965, it was the tallest monument in the country and an icon of St Louis.

From the top, I could see the whole of the city, a blustling hive of activity along the Missouri river.

Two centuries back, famed explorers Lewis and Clark departed crossed its waters into the realm of Red Indians, wild Buffalo and cries of the American bald eagle.

Today, St Louis is scene of modernity. In its dense urban environment, I learnt that the Midwest is not all about corn fields and farm life. There are American brands like Forever 21, H & M, Charlotte Russe on the streets.

However, unlike touristy areas like New York and Los Angeles, Midwestern cities are relatively cheap for accommodation and transport due to low petrol prices.

The heart of America

Due to its distance from the coast, foreign cultural influences are not strong in the Midwest.

People also have a deep sense of loyalty to their town and neighbourhood. In local town sports events, the atmosphere of support is electrifying.

A basketball match is often watched by a large loyal alumnus, who return without fail every year. They redid their school cheers even as older folk, wearing the same smile they had years ago as a youth.

But the intense national pride and inward looking worldview also meant that America are apathetic about the world outside their town. While knowledgeable about the places in their vicinity, they can even get confused about the location of their own states within US.

But midwestern Americans are far from homophobic. Even as refugees from Iraq, Cuba and parts of Africa are arriving in large numbers into the Midwest, the community had been supportive of them.

When government aid falls through, Americans mobilise and form local support groups. Whether religious or secular in origin, both worked hard to help refugees in anyway they can.

Perhaps Americans, being an immigrant society, had a culture that always reached out to newcomers, welcoming them into the American dream.

While things can get inconvenient in Missouri due poor public transport, freezing cold or confusing maps, I always knew there are people I can count on in this heart of America.



1) Visit a house party. Bars close early in Missouri but Americans make up for it at home.
2) Climb up the famous Gateway Arch and get a breathtaking view of St Louis.
3) Rub the nose of the David Francis statue in Missouri School of Journalism. Tradition states that it will get you an ‘A’ for exam.


1) Stay outside past 10pm. Certain city districts, even near downtown, can be dangerous when night falls.
2) Drink alcohol while walking on the streets. It is illegal.
3) Speak under the Journalism Arch at Missouri School of Journalism. Tradition states that you will fail your exams.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Inle Lake, Myanmar

From Dec 31, 2011 to Jan 8, 2012, I joined 4 other NTU students on a field trip to Inle Lake, Myanmar. The project was part of NTU Environmental Endeavour (EE2). NTU students interacted with local university students and imparted water testing skills to them. These students will be able to conduct water testing on Inle Lake to determine the level of pollution. Here are some photos I took as the official photographer of the field trip. Copyright belongs to EE2.

Novice monks at a temple in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Monks take a morning walk on the streets of Nyaungshwe town, Shan State, Myanmar.

The people at Inle Lake have been living on floating villages since the 16th century.

The water of Inle Lake used to be clean enough for the humans to drink directly from it. However, this practice stopped decades ago due to increased pollution within the lake.

A farmer tends to his farm which is built entirely on floating islands. The people living on Inle Lake travel completely by boat.

Children are free to row around on boats, visiting their relatives who live close to one another.

Bamboo poles are used to carry power lines to floating villages on the lake.

Passengers on boat feed the seagulls flying over the lake.

Walking along the edges of Inle Lake is very different from walking on city roads.

Locals at Inle Lake.

NTU and local students walking around villages inspecting the state of water access.

Conducting arsenic tests on the water samples from Inle Lake and the surrounding streams.

Bacteria was found in water drawn from some of the wells used by villagers.

A Myanmar student learns to conduct water testing.

Myanmar students sharing a lighthearted moment during water testing.

Inle Lake at dusk.

Other photos can be found on my Flickr.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Some glimpses of South Thailand

From July 19 to August 2 this year, I joined 14 other fellow media students for overseas reporting in Phang Nga, Southern Thailand. The trip is part of a module called Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting (GO-FAR) and its funded by the Wee Kim Wee Legacy Fund. I also took the opportunity to snap some pictures :) 

Mok (centre) plays hopscotch at an orphange in Phang Nga, Thailand. She and her friends at the orphanage are survivors from the 2004 Asian tsunami which killed thousands of people on Thailand's west coast. 

A ship and a car share parking space in Baan Nam Khem. The 2004 tsunami had flung dozens of ships deep inland. Today, they serve as a memorial to a horrific past.

Raof, a Burmese worker on board a Thai trawler, passes a barrel to a fellow worker on a trawler at Kuraburi port, Thailand. The 38-year-old fled Burma after the failure of the 1988 pro-democracy protests. He came to Thailand in 2005 and has been surviving on border passes as a form of identification. 

Burmese workers untangle fishing nets as their trawler prepares to leave Thaplamu pier in Phang Nga province, Thailand. Many Burmese work on Thai trawlers, spending about ten to 15 days a month on sea. 

Wan Kankaew, 29, owns a commercial trawler and four longtail boats. Most of his workers are Burmese and they are a mix of registered and illegal workers. He complains that many Burmese run away after getting their work permit and its really difficult to keep his entire crew registered.

Pristine mangrove forests line the shore near Kuraburi port in Thailand. Mangrove forests are home to a rich variety of marine life. Once popular sites for logging and charcoal making, these mangroves are protected by Thai law today. 

Manat Onsuwan lived in Baan Kanim village as a fisherman. During the monsoon period, the 47-year-old would fish for crabs in the safety of the mangrove forest. He fears that with the rise of commercial trawlers, traditional fishermen like him can no longer survive and fishing villages will disappear within his lifetime. 

Hern Laokam is a retired dive fisherman from Baan Nam Khem. The former miner spent 15 years on the seas but his 3 children, drawn to jobs in the modernizing Thai economy, are unwilling to inherit his trade. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My dialogue with Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Nothing to do with pictures or articles. After being a news writer for 3 years, I became a news maker for once.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Piece by piece, Malaysia builds a new metropolis by Singapore

During my internship at Thomson Reuters, I was sent on a media tour to Legoland. Upon return, I wrote a story on Iskandar Malaysia, and it was used as a sidebar to a special report, Malaysia's Dilemma, written by my editor, Bill Tarrant.

The sidebar in PDF:

I took some pictures during the media trip too...