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How did we miss Chek Jawa?

Lessons learnt

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

A reprieve for Pulau Ubin
When the URA Concept Plan of 1991 was released, amongst the most notable issues was the reclamation of Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the Year 'X' when the population reached 4 million, reclamation to these islands would lead to housing for 400,000 people. An assurance was given that the natural character of these islands would be retained for as long as possible.

The Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) and several other civic groups composed of trekkers, artists and the general public argued the case for conservation of Pulau Ubin as a whole for the past 10 years. All were in agreement of retaining the 70's like charm of the island as a weekend getaway for stressed city-dweller with riches of culture, history and natural history.

In the meantime, fears were of "improvement works" that would turn the island into another Sentosa and thus destroy most of its character. Changes began in recent years: the number of island residents were reduced, squatters forced out, roads paved and vehicles licensed. More changes were to follow, and the charm of the island seemed to degenerate. Then, in a press release on 20th July 2001, the URA stated that they 'have no plans to develop Pulau Ubin' and that it was 'the intention is to leave it in its natural state for as long as possible.' The temporary nature of this state of affairs was emphasised, in light of limited land resources. This did not include the coastline.

Chek Jawa - how did we miss this?
What about Chek Jawa, a rare habitat in Singapore described by the current NSS President Dr Geh Min as a 'gift from heaven'? How did such an area get missed by the natural history community? In debates over the past decade, the name has not been a familiar one.

The reasons are numerous. Faced with the formidable threat of reclamation and development, the strategy generally adopted appears to have been directed to saving the whole island, thus losing out on specifics like Chek Jawa, despite promoting Ubin.

Pulau Ubin was marketed as a microcosm of history, culture and natural history. In impressing upon others the third element - the biodiversity value of the island, there was a reasonable reliance on 'charismatic megafauna' - the largest, most colourful and cutest animals and plants that the public could identify with. Additionally at the time, most of the expertise of campaigners in the principle and veteran NGO, the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS), lay with vertebrate animals, particularly birds and mammals.

Invertebrates remain relatively poorly identifiable to this day, for they are the largest group with often tricky nomenclature that stumps even an expert taxonomist. A relative lack of popular literature and their less than appealing appearances rate them a poor second in popularity contests with the vertebrates.

Lack of a public access to the area was a significant problem. The path land leading to the coast was marked "private property", and most NSS members would have respected such boundaries on Pulau Ubin. A map of Pulau Ubin published in the society's Nature Watch magazine does not reflect the true nature of the site. Ironically it is the resettlement of these residents and/or "squatters who are affected by reclamation work" that has finally allowed easy public access to Chek Jawa.

By the time the 2001 Concept Plan was announced, URA proudly announced the retention of Pulau Ubin's character for as long as possible. But reclamation plans were underway, and all awoke to the bittersweet discovery of the unique marine ecosystems of Chek Jawa.

Lessons learnt>>
  Sivasothi, N. 2001. Chek Jawa, lost forever? Asian Geographic, 10: 12-25.
This article appeared in Asian Geographic: Journal of our Environment (Sep-Oct 01 issue)

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