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Reclamation since the beginning
So what's the fuss about?

Outdoor classroom

How did we miss Chek Jawa?

Lessons learnt

Articles cited or referred to
by N. Sivasothi
photos by Alan Yeo

Articles cited or referred to

Ang, H. S., 2001. Chek Jawa reclamation decided after careful study. The Straits Times, 27th July 2001.

Ang, H. S., 2001. Ubin land reclamation work behind moves, The Straits Times, 14th February 2001.

Appan, A., 1992. The control of water quality in Singapore. In A. Gupta & J. Pitts (eds.), Physical adjustments in a changing landscape - the Singapore story: 374-388.

Focus Group on Identity vs Intensive Use of Land, 2000. Focus Group Concept Plan Review: Focus Group Consultation on Identity vs Intensive Use of Land. Report submitted to the Ministry of National Development, 22 December 2000

Ho, H. C., 1996. Assessments still vital for projects affecting nature areas. The Straits Times, 20th April 1996.

Hooper, JNA, JA Kennedy & RWM van Soest, 2000. Annotated checklist of sponges (Porifera) of the South China Sea region. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, Supplement No. 8: 125-207.

Koh, Elaine, 1991. Target: Private housing for a third of the population. Business Times, 13th September 1999.

Min, Geh, 2001. Chek Jawa's natural beach should be preserved The Straits Times,16th July 2001.

Nathan, D., 1998. Can land-scare S'pore afford nature conservation? The Straits Times, 13th September 1998

Nathan, Dominic, 1999. Consider new ideas before encroaching into nature area. The Straits Times, 14th November 1999.

Tan, C. M., 2001. Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin, what does your heart tell you? 6th August 2001.

Tan, M. H., 2001. Speech by Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Develpoment, at the official opening of Hindhede Nature Park on 17 August 2001, 9.30am at Hindhede Nature Park. Singapore Government Press Release, 17th August 2001.

Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore, 2001. URA releases Concept Plan 2001 after extensive consultation. Government press release, 20 July 2001.

Wee, L., 2001. Chek out this hidden Eden. The Sunday Times, 8th July 2001.

Wong, P. P., 1992. The newly reclaimed land. In A. Gupta & J. Pitts (eds.), Physical adjustments in a changing landscape - the Singapore story. Singapore: Univ. Press. Pp. 243-258.

Yap, S., 2001. Mamma mia! Don't turn S'pore into Little Italy. The Straits Times, 2nd September 2001

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Chek Jawa reclamation decided after careful study
The Straits Times Forum Page
27 Jul 2001

I refer to Dr Geh Min's letter, 'Chek Jawa's natural beach should be preserved' (ST, July 16). The letter highlighted the dilemma our planners face in trying to meet the pressures of physical development of Singapore to facilitate economic development, while trying to retain as much of our natural heritage as possible.

As a city-state, we also have to provide for other critical land-use needs, like water-catchment areas and military training grounds.

The reclamation that affects Tanjong Chek Jawa at the eastern tip of Pulau Ubin was approved in 1992. The reclamation profile was subsequently reflected in the Development Guide Plan in 1997 and the Master Plan in 1998.

With public feedback that Pulau Ubin should remain as it is for now, the island has been largely zoned as 'open space and reserve land' in the 2001 Concept Plan.

This is a change from the 1991 Concept Plan, which envisaged housing on Pulau Ubin. With this change, Pulau Ubin will stay undeveloped for as long as possible.

However, the reclaimed land in Pulau Ubin which is reflected as 'reserve land' will be for the Ministry of Defence's military training use. This is part of a long-term plan to ensure that we have sufficient land for Mindef's training needs.

We would like to assure Dr Geh that the Government is mindful of the need to minimise the impact of reclamation on the environment where possible.

The Housing Board had therefore commissioned a study to determine the impact of the reclamation on dugongs. The study concluded that the sea grass in the area is patchy and not abundant, and the area does not appear to have a resident population of dugongs. Hence, the reclamation would not have any significant impact on a dugong population.

In addition, the study concluded that the area does not have any established coral reefs or reef communities, nor would the conditions favour the development of such. Currently, the National Parks Board is also working on transplanting plants that will be affected by the reclamation work to other parts of the island.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has been looking at retaining features and places that reflect the identity of a place where these can be suitably integrated into the planning and development of an area. For instance, in the 2001 Concept Plan, the existing nature areas at Sungei Khatib Bongsu and Sungei China mangroves at Woodlands have been proposed to be integrated with parks.

It will be a constant challenge for the URA to satisfy the needs of Singaporeans for housing, work and recreation.

We thank Dr Geh for her feedback and interest in Singapore's physical development.

Head (Public Relations)
for Chief Executive Officer
Urban Redevelopment Authority
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Chek Jawa's natural beach should be preserved
The Straits Times Forum Page
16 Jul 2001

One of the most embarrassing questions I am frequently asked by visitors to Singapore is this: 'Singapore is a tropical island but where are your natural beaches?'

It is difficult to explain that under the pressure of rapid economic development, which has made Singapore the success story it is today, we could not afford to keep most of our natural coastline.

We are not lacking in beaches, but almost all are man-made, and anyone who has experienced the real thing will tell you that there is a vast difference between the two.

Natural beaches have a rich diversity of marine and shore flora and fauna which man-made beaches lack.

It is like comparing genuine laksa with a packaged, instant variety. The latter is just not lemak.

I recall the excitement when Tanjong Chek Jawa was discovered last December off the eastern tip of Pulau Ubin.

Here was a beautiful, pristine beach that had more extensive sand flats than Labrador Beach (a designated nature area); a beach forest that contained many rare plants and marine life, such as extensive beds of seagrass which are the only food source for the internationally-endangered dugong; and mangrove and rocky shores rich with treasures for both life scientists and the average Singaporean to discover.

It was like a gift from heaven.

But this wonderful discovery has its tragic side. Chek Jawa will soon be irrevocably destroyed by land reclamation.

The draft Concept Plan 2001 has stated that Pulau Ubin will stay undeveloped for as long as possible.

It has also stated that, in addition to buildings, the Urban Redevelopment Authority will look into features and places that reflect the identity of an existing area. These can be integrated into the planning and development of a town or an estate.

The Government is prepared to invest heavily in education and research in the life sciences. It is also putting large sums into eco-tourism, as seen in the Southern Islands project.

The cost of incorporating Tanjong Chek Jawa as a natural feature in the reclamation of Pulau Ubin would cost a lot less and benefit the life sciences, eco-tourism and all Singa-poreans immeasurably.

It is something that should be urgently explored before it is too late.

Nature Society (Singapore)
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Chek this out
The Straits Times, Life!
15 July 2001
by Lea Wee

An expanse of mud and sand at Tanjong Chek Jawa, off the eastern tip of Pulau Ubin, has been drawing droves of nature lovers for months. When the tide goes out, tiny sea creatures are exposed for a kilometre or so on the soft mud which gives way to firmer sand.

Members of the Nature Society (Singapore) have stumbled on this spit of land last December and since then news of it has spread like fire. What has added fuel to the spread is that this area, together with the eastern part of the island, will soon be reclaimed to meet Singapore’s housing needs.

Mr Chua Sek Chuan, chairman of the Marine Conservation Group at Nature Society, says: "The mud and sand flat at Chek Jawa is probably one of the last, if not the last, one in Singapore.’’ The mud and sand blooms with sea creatures thought to have become uncommon over the years -- the starfish, sea anemone and sea cucumber.

Even the "real rarities’’ such as sand dollar, the sea hare, and the horseshoe crab, can be spotted occasionally. Crabs, snails and other burrowing animals make tunnels in the mud, while fishes swim in shallow pools of water.

Says Mr Chua: "Some of these sea creatures have been found to be medically important, and may have the potential to contribute to the current research in the life sciences."

Holding this shifting mosaic of mud and sand in place is an extensive network of roots from the sea grasses. "There are at least four species of seagrasses to be found here. Such extensive beds of seagrasses are an extremely rare sight in Singapore," says Assistant Professor Shawn Lum, chairman of the plant group in Nature Society.

What further enhances the beauty of this expanse of flat land are fringing mangroves on one side, and a rocky shore on the other. The mangroves feature a magnificent stand of bakau trees and a patch of nipah (attap palms) while the rocky shore sprouts rarities such the seashore nutmeg and the sea olive.

Prof Lum says that mature mangrove and rocky shore of the types found at Chek Jawa are no longer plentiful on the mainland. "While such plants could conceivably be grown in a park or garden, but such measures are sound as a conservation strategy only if remnants of the actual habitat continue to exist."

One example, he says, would be if Singaporeans were "to lose touch with their cultural roots, and to have to visit a museum or consult a book for to learn about the ways and wisdom of their ancestors."

The potential of the area as a natural outdoor classroom has not lost upon teachers. Prof Lum, who is also a biology lecturer at the National Institute of Education, says: "One can use the area to conduct a multitude of lessons and activities on biodiversity, physical geography, mangrove ecology, eco-tourism development, and so much more. The possibilities are endless!"

An equally enthusiastic biology teacher from Raffles Girls’ School, Ms Tan Beng Chiak, has taken a group of 20 to 30 students there twice. She says: "They loved it. At Chek Jawa, there is no highrise buildings, just clear sky, blue water, and an immense stretch of sand flat and mud flat. "In every other step my students took, they were able to discover something new. Hopefully, they will now realise that they have a rich natural heritage in their backyard and that they do not need to go somewhere else to find it."

Her student Neo Peizi, 16, adds:"I have never been to a place like this. You can walk all the way out through the mud and sand, and feel and touch the marine creatures. But it’s sad to know that all this is going to be gone soon."

Prized Possessions
Mud and sand may not sound appealing to most people, but multitudes of sea animals and plants have found their home in these very habitats as well as the natural coastline of Chek Jawa.

Sea anemone: At least two species can be found here. The "carpet’’ anemone looks like a gigantic "flower" while the "tube" anemone has spilling tentacles. They are carnivorous animals with a central mouth and tentacles to help them catch prey.

Sponge: More than 10 species were found. Compounds isolated from these primitive animals may have the potential to provide a cure for cancer. Sponges are believed to be at least five million years old, and have changed little with time. They have a fantastic power of regeneration. A fragment broken off can grow into a complete animal. Like an animated sieve, they feed on minute particles suspended in water.

Sand dollar: This is an endangered species in Singapore. It looks like a flat version of the sea urchin but has shorter and less obvious spines. It moves by paddling its bristly spines and grazes on particles found in the sand.

Sea Hare: This animal, which belongs to the same family as the sea slug and the marine snail, is also rare in Singapore waters. It has rabbit-like ears, hence its common name. The "ears" are not hearing organs, but 'feelers', like those seen on a regular snail.

Horseshoe crab: Another rarity, this is not a true crab, but belongs to a very ancient group with three living representatives which can be found in Southeast Asian waters. Unlike what many think, its long tail is not used as a weapon, but is used to right itself if it gets turned over. It has been found that a purified extract of its blood can be used to detect many bacterial toxins and hence facilitate treatment. NUS researchers recently found that a cloned enzyme from the crab may be able to kill bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Seagrass: This is a flowering plant of shallow coastal waters. At least four species of seagrasses can be found at Chek Jawa, growing together with the seaweeds, which are algae. Extensive beds of seagrasses are an extremely rare sight in mainland Singapore. They are important because they support a diverse fish and invertebrate community. The endangered dugong, or sea cow, feeds only on seagrasses.
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Ubin land reclamation work behind moves
The Straits Times Forum Page Feb 14, 2001

I refer to the article, "Leaving Ubin for life on mainland", by Mr Thomas White (ST, Feb 12). The article said that the "residents are being relocated as part of the1991 Concept Plan, which foresees residential and industrial developments".

This might give readers the wrong impression that residential or industrial developments are about to take place on the island, forcing the residents to be resettled. We wish to clarify that this is not the case. The resettlement cases mentioned involve a number of squatters who are affected by reclamation work. The reclamation of land on Pulau Ubin was gazetted in 1992 and publicised in the Master Plan 1998. The land is being reclaimed in readiness for future uses. What these uses would be are being studied as part of the Concept Plan review.

Public Relations
for Chief Executive Officer and Chief Planner
Urban Redevelopment Authority
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Singapore: Target - Private housing for a third of the population
The Business Times
13 Sep 1991
By Elaine Koh

SINGAPORE - Nearly a third of Singapore's future four million people will be living in private apartments, townhouses, terraces and bungalows, with the percentage of high-rise HDB dwellers dropping from 83 per cent to 70 per cent.

This was the projection made under the revised Concept Plan which envisages housing four million people comfortably on the island. The government is already making mid-priced leasehold land in or around HDB estates available through its rolling three-year sale programme.

According to the Concept Plan, which maps the long-term development strategy for the island, low and medium density housing will increase by over 60 per cent to 211,000 units by the year 2000, from the present 130,000. Not only will more people have better housing, there will also be a greater diversity of styles to choose from.

But the Urban Redevelopment Authority can only release the land for housing, pointed out its chief executive officer and chief planner, Mr Liu Thai Ker. It is up to the private sector to decide how to build and market these new homes. The Concept Plan also envisages new styles of living - with homes in the city centre, along waterfronts and near gardens and parks.

To achieve comfortable living for four million people, the blueprint drawn up by the URA will target massive reclamation programmes on the main and outlying islands. This will boost Singapore's land area by 15 per cent.

Pulau Ubin and Tekong will grow from 2,800 hectares to 5,000 hectares, allowing them to hold 400,000 people. However, these islands will only be used for housing if the population goes above four million. They will be left in their natural state as far as possible.

New housing areas have been planned in Sembawang, Kangkar, Punggol, Seletar, Tengah, Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Kadut for the longer term. Plot ratios of sites around MRT stations will also be increased to provide more space. The inner city - including the new downtown in Marina Bay - will offer 56,000 homes, against the 31,000 units today. In addition, some land now occupied by industries more suitable for residential will be freed for new housing.

The number of households is expected to increase from the current 650,000 to about 1.3 million by year X, the time when Singapore's population is four million. However, instead of getting more cramped, each person will have more space, from the current 20 sq metres of floor space per person to 30-35 sq m. This is equivalent to a family of four in a threeroom flat going into a fourroom flat. Household size will also shrink, from an average 4.2 people per household to 3.1.
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Can land-scare S’pore afford nature conservation?
The Straits Times
13 September 1998

Nature reserve land sacrificed for water storage tanks. Sungei Punggol mangroves to make way for homes. St John’s Island to be a detention facility. Are the days of nature conservation numbered? Or have the critics missed the woods for the trees?

By Dominic Nathan

In land-scare Singapore, flora and fauna do not hold freehold tenure over any spot, even protected nature reserve land.

National and strategic interests dictate otherwise. Social and economic needs take precedence and the Government adopts a pragmatic approach to nature conservation. For example, in building the Bukit Timah express way in 1985, a 50-m wide swathe was cut through the forested catchment. This year, 11 ha of nature reserve land next to Upper Peirce reservoir had to be sacrificed to build giant storage tanks.

In recent letters to The Straits Times Forum Page, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has been held responsible for these encroachments into the nature reserves and the loss of other green pockets across the island. With every loss of a nature area, it is accused of taking the easy option.

Mr Tan See Nin, URA’s head of strategic planning, believes that the critics have missed the woods for the trees. "But those cities do not have to worry about land for military training or water catchment," he notes. In Singapore, every need has to be seen to and squeezed within what is available and done in a manner that still offers the population a quality of life that compares with the best of any modern metropolis.

His colleague, Mr Seow Kah Ping, head of the local planning, argues that while URA is not anti-conservation, the reality is that it is not going to be possible to preserve every single nature pocket if the planned four million people or more are to live, work and play comfortably on this island. Even though 3,130 ha or 5 per cent of Singapore's land area has been set aside for conservation, Mr Seow says: "Future development cannot be entirely precluded given that there could be other more important competing uses for such land, particularly if they are of national or strategic interest, for example, housing and infrastructure needs."

To begin with, URA does not have all of Singapore's 645 sq km to plan with. About 20 per cent is set aside for military training grounds. Some of this doubles as catchment area which occupies a total of 40 per cent. Singapore has the highest density of airports in the world. Its five civilian and military fields impose height restrictions on buildings, practically across the island.

Outside of the Central Business District, where skyscrapers are allowed to reach 280 m, most of the island is restricted to about 40m or 11 or 12 storeys. Sewage treatment plants, refuse incinerators and industries with chimneys also restrict what, if anything, can be built in their vicinity and how high they can go.

When the space constraints are factored in, just over 50 per cent of Singapore is left to be taken up by homes, schools, hospitals, offices, factories, roads and parks. By the year 2010, about 67 per cent of Singapore will be urbanised, reveals URA. "If we build at a low density and preserve avery nature area that a migratory bird decides to adopt, we will exhaust our land banks prematurely," says Mr Tan.

It is difficult to argue against these cold hard facts.

But if even the 2,800 ha of nature reserve land is not sacrosanct, then why draw up a plan that commits the Government to protecting 19 sites covering 3,130 ha?

As part of a blueprint to turn Singapore into a model environment city, the Green Plan, outlining nature areas to be protected, was adopted five years ago. Nature-lovers have since been calling for the boundaries of the 19 sites to be demarcated clearly and the sites given some form of legal protection, similar to the nature reserves.

To date, nothing has happened and no one can say if it will.

When asked about this, URA says that the National Parks Board (NParks) is better placed to answer these questions. Nparks chief executive officer Tan Wee Kiat explains that the board's primary responsibility is the nature reserves.

Although Nparks has been designated the scientific authority on nature conservation for Green Plan, its role "is strictly a technical one, confined to ensuring the health of nature areas". "To this end, Nparks has been documenting the biodiversity of nature areas so that when consulted by the planning authorites over developments that may affect these areas, we are able to provide the necessary technical information and assessment of impact to enable them to make informed decisions." This suggests that unless a designated a nature reserve by URA, any role Nparks may have in conserving it is limited.

Where does Green Plan Stand? Five years on and where does Green Plan stand?

Dr Ho Hua Chew, chairman of the conservation committee of the Nature Society (Singapore), says that at least six out of the19 sites are threatened by various development projects, from shore reclamation to the building of houses, expressways and satellite stations. But as the experience of the nature reserves has shown, its legal status is no guarantee of protection.

To further complicate matters, URA declared five southern a Marine Nature Area in 1996. Again Nparks was roped in. All development proposals for the Sisters' Islands, St John's Island, Lazarus Island, Kusu Island and Pulau Seringat were to be assessed by the board. Till today, no one is quite sure what this means and neither does anyone know the extent of protection the islands, reefs and waters around it are entitled to.

In June, the Home Affairs Ministry said it was converting some buildings on St John's Island into a temporary detention facility for illegal immigrants and hardcore drug addicts. And once the facility starts receiving inmates the public would no longer be allowed to visit the island. Turning St John's Island into a tropical Alcatraz is probably not what nature lovers had in mind when the island was declared part of the Marine Nature Area.

The main concern for the islands had always been the survival of coral reefs in the area. Nparks is both literally and operationally land-locked, concedes Dr Tan.

The board relies on marine biologists from the National University of Singapore to provide assessments and suggestions on how to salvage or portect the corals from the effects of reclamation work.

As in the case of the Green Plan, the question of boundaries and legal protection arises again. Says Dr Tan: "In practical terms, designating boundaries in the seas is even more tenuous than on land, because unless you can control the tides and currents which carry the sediment, it is not going to have much effect. And you would need a fleet to patrol the area."

Both the Green Plan and Marine Nature Area concept appear to have promised more than they can deliver. One thing everybody seems to be able to agree upon is that there is definitely nature here worth preserving.

According to the Nparks, the reserve's 2,800 ha is home to 2,277 plant species, 85 mammal species and 180 bird species. New Zealand has a slightly lower native plant diversity than Singapore although it is 400 times larger.

Says Dr Tan: "How many cities in the world have their own nature reserve... A garden city with pristine nature."

The Garden City concept was built up over the last 30 years by Nparks and its predecessor, the Parks and Recreation Department, at a cost of about $1 billion, according to a Sunday Preview estimate of the greening agencies' cumulative expenditure over the years.

And the return on the investment?
In 1987, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew says: "The trees and shrubs have given an air of grace and cultivation that cannot be measured in dollars." There is also the promise of future gains.

Notes Nparks public affairs manager, Ms Karen Bartholomeusz: "Our forests are also a rich storehouse of potential pharmaceutical, medicinal and industrial products." In a 1995 paper on Urbanisation and Nature Conservation co-authored by Dr Tan, he says: "Possibly of greatest social value, the forest reserves of Singapore are important sanctuaries from the stresses of urban living."

There can be no dispute that Singapore's natural heritage is both valuable and valued by many, seeing as how 140,000 people visited the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve alone last year.

The question remains, how can it be safeguarded for future generations?

Policies such as reclamation, co-locating community facilities under one roof and re-developing existing sites more intensively have nothing to do with nature conservation but are helping nonetheless to slow the demand for new land.

Although combining a community centre with a library in one multi-storey building seems like a logical thing to do to save a place, Mr Seow says: "It was a quantum leap to achieve this." He explains that everyone wants a nice large sprawling site with its own building. Selling the idea has not been easy within the public sector, he admits.

Despite appearing to be on opposite sides, both URA and nature-lovers want the same thing fundamentally - to optimise use of developed land so as to delay having to dip into the dwindling land bank. More work has to be done to devise and sell space-saving ideas if the Government is to deliver on the promise of the Green Plan and the Marine Nature Area.

How Hongkong optimises land use?

And for an idea of how to build in tight spots, look no further than Hongkong.

The Singapore International School in Hongkong is built on a steep slope and occupies only 0.4ha, about the size of a community club here and one-quarter the size of an average primary school, say Mr Tan. By going up to 13 storeys, instead of four here in Singapore schools, the Hongkong institution still manages to accommodate about 900 students and provide a full range of facilities such as roof-top play areas, tennis court, gymnasium and a swimming pool. There is even an assembly area on the eighth storey that fire engines can access by a ramp leading up to the level.

Innovation in land use is also evident in Hongkong's private sector, with the Coca Cola Swire bottling plant in Shatin, built to look more like an office complex than a factory. The 19-storey building stands on a 0.7ha site and the production line, which is usually laid out horizontally, is now run top-down.

Says Mr Tan: "We have to overcome the psychological barriers and break out of the legacies of the past. Why do motor workshops, for example, have to be spread out? Can't they be stacked multi-storey?"

One other option which holds great promise here is to go underground. Two studies by researchers from the Nanyang Technological University into the geology of the island have found large parts of it highly suitable to build caverns for storage and other uses.

And by the middle of next year, the Public Works Department tells Sunday review that field work will be completed for what could be the first major civilian cavern project, the Underground Science city - a subterranean equivalent of Science Park -beneath the hills of Keng Ridge Park.

Convincing the public and private sector to co-locate facilities, build multi-storey or go underground seems very remote from the issue of saving a mangrove swamp. But anything that slows down the demand for new land will go towards extending the existing lease held by nature areas.

Space-saving policies aside, there is also the question of policies. In the 1995 paper, Dr Tan says: "The pressure to regard the nature reserves as a land bank to draw upon for development will intensify… The fate of nature conservation in Singapore will very much depend upon the political will, which is turn is shaped by the priorities of the people of Singapore".
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Singapore: Consider new ideas before encroaching into nature area
The Straits Times My View 14 Nov 1999
by Dominic Nathan.

So what is the fuss about conserving Pulau Ubin or any other nature area for that matter?

Sunday Plus columnist Sumiko Tan said in her column last week that if need be, these areas should be developed, and we should not be crying over every single mangrove filled in or tree cut down if preserving them means having to go without homes. I agree, and so would many environmentalists and nature lovers out there too. They are greenies, they are not crazies!

Depicting them as extremists intent on saving nature at all costs does them an injustice. But more importantly, it muddies the issue, which is: when and how do we determine that there is a need to encroach into a nature area.

Yes, our planners are trying new approaches like building 40-storey HDB flats and multi-storey factories and co-locating public facilities to maximise land use. But to a large extent, their options are very much restricted by existing planning guidelines and inertia on the part of major developers in both the public and private sectors.

If Singapore is to be a world class home to five million people or more, planners and developers no longer have the luxury of waiting for someone else to try out new ideas. They need to start thinking outside the box and consider: Instead of golf courses, can homes be built in catchment areas, where there is supposed to be little or no development?

Frankly, if we can have thousands of golfers trampling on the greens every day, pump fertilizers to maintain the courses and erect large club houses with all the facilities of a condominium, why can't we have low-rise homes next to a reservoir? Building on such sought-after locations will be attractive to developers even if building costs are made more expensive by the imposition of stricter environmental and pollution control measures to safeguard the reservoirs.

After all, in land scarce Singapore, surely we can find better use for part of the 1,400 ha of land occupied by golf courses now, which is equivalent to the size of 2-1/2 Ang Mo Kio new towns.

Land reserved for military uses, airports and sewerage treatment plants was assumed untouchable till not very long ago. But both the Environment and Defence ministries are already exploring novel approaches to not only reduce the buffer around their facilities but also go one up and give up the entire site by, for example, building ammunition depots and sewage treatment plants underground.

Other sacred cows should be re-considered in the same spirit. Singapore has the highest density of airports in the world. Its five civilian and military fields impose height restrictions on buildings, practically across the island. Outside of the Central Business District, where skyscrapers are allowed to reach 280 m, most of the island is restricted to about 40 m or 11 or 12 storeys. Can't some of the airbases be combined or re-located to release more land or ease the height restrictions?

A Singapore Institute of Architects study, carried out a decade ago, concluded that it was possible to house another one million people in the Central Planning Region at a plot ratio of 4.5. Another 200,000 could be housed in existing housing estates by building on fringe lands. And this could be achieved while increasing space allocation from 20 sq m per person back in 1990 to about 36 sq m per person, a figure comparable with that of Europe, which stands at 38 sq m per person, for the living standard of a developed society.

According to architect Tay Kheng Soon, the main unused space resource still untapped is the space over our expressways. Singapore's expressways occupy about 5 per cent of the total land space. This equals 3,225 ha. Building over 20 per cent of this space will potentially release 645 ha, which at a plot ratio of 3, could house 645,000 people.

Mr Tay has been saying this for many years now. He suggested slabbing over the Ayer Rajah Expressway opposite the National University of Singapore and building a new university town with housing, shops, restaurants, bookshops and theatres. By extending Mr Tay's thinking east along the highway, imagine the landscape at the east coast if the East Coast Parkway was not there. By turning the 13-km stretch of the ECP, from Changi Airport to Fort Road into a tunnel, about 85 ha could be freed, possibly for low-rise and landed homes.

As with golf course land, the sale of much sought-after beach-front property could offset the cost of building the ECP tunnel. Marine Parade residents would no longer be cut off from the beach as underpasses, which are few and far between now, can be replaced by roads if not pedestrian malls that will connect the housing estate directly to the seaside.

Already popular as a park, the new-look east coast could develop its own identity to rival beach communities worldwide, with its own distinct beach-front promenade, featuring alfresco dining and pubs, and maybe even outdoor sports such as beach volleyball and soccer.

On paper, the possibilities are endless. But are they workable? Well, no one has come out to say that Mr Tay's ideas will not work. Silence will only result in nature lovers concluding that when mangroves are filled in and trees cut down, it is because the authorities have taken the easy option. And with that decision is lost more than just a breeding ground for some exotic bird, which only a handful of birdwatchers are bothered about.

A recently concluded six-year survey of the nature reserves revealed that it probably has the world's highest concentration of flora and fauna locked up in a very small area - about 2,000 species in more than 2,800 ha of nature reserves. And hidden away in one of those species could be the genetic clues to a new drug.

Only last month, at an international Aids conference in Kuala Lumpur, researchers talked about the optimistic findings of a possible new Aids treatment being developed from a substance from the bark of a tree found in Sarawak.

For Singaporeans prone to viewing only the bottomline when deciding anything, remember that when a forest is cut down, the secrets held within its barks, leaves and roots are lost forever. So before it is decided which swamp or forest has to go, we had better make sure we know exactly what we stand to lose. More detailed surveys should be carried out to find out about the flora and fauna in all the major nature pockets throughout Singapore.

So what is the fuss about Pulau Ubin?

It has more to do with the decision-making process than flora and fauna. If after an open and objective assessment of the various land use options, it is still decided that the need to develop a nature area is far greater than the benefits of conserving it, so be it. I am quite sure that the majority of nature lovers here will have no quarrel with that decision if it is arrived at after a rigorous and transparent planning process, where non-governmental organisations and the public are not only allowed but also welcomed to participate.

Picking the easy option of developing nature areas, and then justifying it with the simplistic reasoning that homes for the people are more important than birds' nests, is doing exactly what many accuse the green groups of doing - being irrational.

By 2001, the new Concept Plan will be ready and Ubin's fate and possibly that of other nature areas will be clearer, if not sealed. I hope those invitations for the public to contribute to shaping their future home - and not just to give feedback on the final draft - are in the mail already, if they have not already been sent out.

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Assessments still vital for projects affecting nature areas
The Straits Times Forum Page
20 Apr 1996

We agree with Dr Euston Quah that careful thought should be given to the question of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) legislation here ("Environmental impact laws not needed yet", ST, April 10). But we concur with Ms Lye Lin Heng and Ms Koh Kheng Lian that legislation should be applied to impacts on nature areas for a start ("Environmental impact laws can only benefit all Singaporeans", ST, April 8).

Legislated EIAs for nature areas are definitely urgent, as noted in "EIAs needed only for big jobs affecting nature-rich areas" (ST, April 15), given the past neglect of the impact on natural habitats by developments. Despite being called a city-state, Singapore is not all city. This is clearly seen in The Singapore Green Plan, where the Government has set aside 5 per cent of the total land area for conservation. It has also ratified the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity and is a signatory to the Asean Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ACNNR). There is also our Wild Animals and Birds Act.

But this act would be useless if the protection of important wildlife habitats is not ensured. Legislation for EIAs of nature areas would show this commitment to their well-being clearly.

The provisions of The Singapore Green Plan and the Urban Redevelopment Authority Concept Plan do not ensure that the 19 officially designated nature areas will remain intact.

Developments are encroaching on the boundaries of many of these areas. If not monitored and controlled, they can hurt the health and viability of such areas as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Nee Soon Swamp Forest.

Mr Billy Chew mentioned in "No need for environmental impact checks" (ST, March 27) that the Development Guide Plan (DGP) sessions are an adequate substitute for EIAs. DGPs have so far only covered areas that are gazetted for residential developments. Some of these may intrude into nature areas but there is no guarantee that feedback from NGOs will be taken seriously.

Where there is controversy, something more is required - and as we see it, an EIA will be relevant to settle the issue. Dr Quah prefers cost-benefit analysis, but we would still need to determine the magnitude and types of impacts of the projects. This is what an EIA is meant to provide. Further, not all DGPs will cover the nature areas designated in The Singapore Green Plan - how then could the issue of the survival of the nature areas affected by developments be decided?

For example, the land reclamation projects along the Johor Straits will affect Sungei Buloh Nature Park, the Kranji Dam mangroves, the Mandai Mangroves and Pulau Ubin. No DGPs have been instituted for them, yet the reclamation projects have been planned and announced. Would EIAs not be necessary to assess the impacts of these projects on these officially designated nature areas, so that at least, mitigation measures could be implemented? We hold that EIAs are needed for any projects encroaching upon or potentially hazardous to:

  • The two nature reserves - Bukit Timah and the central catchment.
  • The 17 other officially designated nature areas of The Singapore Green Plan.
  • The other nature areas not officially designated, if and only if there is a controversy among interest groups, such as coastal habitats and coral reefs.
We are not against using other methods to decide on land use, provided they are scientific and fair. Since there is already precedence in the use of EIAs by the Government - such as the golf course project at Lower Peirce reservoir - further use of it will improve the finer points of its implementation.

The uniqueness of Singapore lies in the fact that a vibrant city-state has nevertheless been able to conserve a significant portion of its natural heritage. Such an achievement may easily become a thing of the past if we do not maintain a high standard of vigilance.

Chairman, Conservation Committee,
The Nature Society, Singapore
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  This article appeared in Asian Geographic: Journal of our Environment (Sep-Oct 01 issue)
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