and biodiversity in Singapore
What could the National Parks Board (NParks) do? Dominic Nathan wrote (in 1998) that the board's primary responsibility is the nature reserves. "Unless designated a nature reserve by URA, any role NParks may have in conserving it is limited." "For marine areas, "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" (Dr Tan Wee Kiat, CEO of NParks).
NParks has cooperatively worked with various groups to document the biodiversity and to provide technical information to minimise impacts in some nature areas. However, with the rate of change in Singapore, they and their partners are hard pressed to keep up. Even wayside trees are at risk and only recently the NParks announced that the government had initiated the Heritage Roads and Heritage Tree scheme to protect the older trees and tree-lined roads. Yet there were no time guarantees for these roads still!
Thus the onus seems to lie heavily with NGOs, particularly the Nature Society (Singapore), the oldest NGO who has championed such causes. Coherent data is needed about the fauna of several sites. If this is ready early, a request for data will be met with a full report rather than a last minute scramble to provide a rough estimate. Expertise in areas such as invertebrate identification and assessment has to be harnessed. In light of this, the National University of Singapore has to contribute by providing the taxonomic expertise. Members of the society and academics at the university lack the cohesion necessary for an integrated approach to convince policy makers of alternate demands. Happily, there are signs that this may take form slowly, as a result of Chek Jawa.
Voice of the people
Dr Tan Wee Kiat was once quoted from a 1995 paper he co-authored that "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." NGOs like the NSS will have to reach out to the public more. In the past year, considerable effort has been put into conducting over subscribed field trips for the public and the Chinese speaking sector and this has been met with considerable success.
Public support for Chek Jawa was evident, but the empathy would not express itself constructively. The majority remains characteristically passive. Tan Choon Ming who cycled the island and helped to popularise Chek Jawa writes, "with regards to my plea to write to the press, I would realistically expect few to actually take up the pen. I cannot but attribute this suspicion to the passivity common amongst Singaporeans."
The URA encouraged the public to submit feedback to the Focus Group's Concept Plan Reviews. Despite the ease with which they facilitated submissions even via their webpage, the reports indicate a startlingly poor submission rate. Recently, an increase in the number of local newspapers has ensured letter writers a higher publication rate. Unpublished letters also find their way to the internet. Greater participation may be eventually nurtured.
Spotlight only on the newsmakers?
Chek Jawa has received a lot of attention these past few months. It is time to also reflect if we have been complacent about reprieved areas like Labrador Park, the only remaining rocky shore on mainland Singapore. How well has the public's and schools exploration of Labrador been facilitated? Webpages encouraged? School projects carried out? Public perception enhanced? Even amongst the university's biology students, many have not visited the rocky shore there. The shock of Chek Jawa must go some way to revive attention at Labrador Rocky shore. Land can not be taken for granted in Singapore.
EIA - a procedure in question
In a startling response to a letter in the newspaper by NSS President Dr Geh Min, the URA replied that "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."(full text of URA reply).
A disconcerting point arose - who had phrased the original terms of reference? Was the report available to the public? The old debate is still open on the need for EIA laws and transparency. Indeed in many parts of Asia, the EIA process leaves much to be desired.
The Focus Group's Concept Plan Review recommended: "Environmental and social impact studies of new developments affecting areas of natural or built heritage and identity should be made compulsory and supervised by the Conservation Trust. The findings of such studies should be made public and be included as inputs in the decision-making process."
Education - much more to work to do
Many Singaporeans can empathise with URA's 'challenge to satisfy the needs of Singaporeans for housing, work and recreation'. However, it appeared that value of Chek Jawa for the EIA had been considered from only two parameters - the presence of marine mammals and the presence of coral reefs. The apparent ignorance of the presence, functions and diversity of all other marine ecosystems seemed either too convenient, or otherwise sadly ignorant.
Could this have been a symptom of the strategy of "charismatic megafauna" gone wrong? Relying on the big (mammals like the dugong" and the beautiful (coral reefs) to engage the layman can lead to a neglect of other organisms. Or is this due partly to a population raised on a diet of exotic documentaries and little experience in their own backyard? More Singaporeans are aware of the Pacific Sea Otter rather than the Smooth-coated Otter that can still be found here - a family of five reside in Sungei Buloh Nature Park, the government-run mangrove park in the north-east of the island.
Even students have a poor appreciation of local ecosystems - a cause for concern since it does reflect a loss of national heritage. While their parents brighten at the recollection of the flora and fauna of coastal ecosystems (admittedly mainly dietary or exploitative thoughts), their children are nonplussed. Many races in multi-racial Singapore share a link with the sea, evidenced by the ethnic lunar calendars and festival dates that they still celebrate.
A sense of identity
This is a current concern - engendering a sense of identity, nurturing a love of the land by a demanding popuation. At the National Day rally, the Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong says, "For Singapore to survive in the longer term, we must have a core of Singaporeans who feel passionately that this place is worth fighting for. To succeed, we must be proud of who we are, of our country and our fellow citizens. We must feel that together, we have created something precious that belongs to all Singaporeans."
Some familiarity in this highly dynamic landscape is called for, and nature areas can contribute. Sonny Yap objecting earlier this year wrote "And before you can say Mamma Mia, a $280-million project was unwrapped in May to transform St John's, Lazarus and Renget islands into an Asian version of Capri, a resort off the west coast of Italy.... How can we make Singapore our Best Home if our Home is devoid of Singapore content and characteristics which give Singaporeans a sense of who they are and where they are?"
Not everyone has given up yet - some are still hoping to persuade at least, an extension to the life expectancy of this secret marine paradise. In the meantime, naturalists are hard at work, racing against tima and tide, to share the beauty of Chek Jawa with school children and adults, to firmly encase memories of the place into the minds of all who set foot there.
Acknowledgements: Darren Yeo, Tan Swee Hee and Kelvin Lim helped to identify the slides. Tan Koh Siang shared his thoughts and observations about the habitats and specifically about the mollusca.
|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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