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Sat 02 Dec 2006

Southern Islands development in the news again

Category : marine

Read WildSingapore's open letter, City Reefs!

"Targeting nature lovers and the well-heeled." The Strait Times, 01 Dec 2006. Industry experts say there must be a relaxation of rules to make area an exclusive spot.

NOT long ago, Kias was a mere shoal, a tiny strip of land in the ocean that disappeared at high tide. Now, after six years of reclamation works, the sandbank has literally grown into an island, one of the cluster of seven that make up the Southern Islands.

On it is the electricity generator that will provide power to the entire cluster of islands, a fact that Mr Ho Chai Teck, who worked on the reclamation plans for Kias when it was just a shoal, finds astounding. 'This was actually all under water,' said the assistant vice-president of reclamation and infrastructure division Surbana, looking at the sandy ground under his feet. 'People couldn't come here.'

Since then, the islands of Pulau Seringat and Lazarus have also been linked with a sand bank which forms a lagoon that has an unobstructed seaview. The islands currently attract about 100,000 visitors a year, mainly pilgrims, campers, day-trippers and canoeists.

But once developed into an exclusive destination, Southern Islands Development managing director Pamelia Lee expects two types of tourists: the well-heeled who can afford the luxury lifestyle and those who want to explore the rustic surroundings for its flora and fauna, including 300 species of native wildlife.

However, she remains realistic about prospects. Comparing the islands to similar waterfront playgrounds in Australia, Phuket and Malaysia, here, there are no spectacular beaches. No whales to watch. In fact, getting there might even prove daunting for the average convenience-seeking Singaporean.

'Some investors have told us to our face that this is too complex for their customers,' she said. Those who are interested are attracted for a different reason, she said. They see the islands as being 'on the doorstep of a vibrant area that's really taking off - Sentosa is booming, the HarbourFront is booming.

'So many developers, they said it was unspoiled. Sometimes they go into a site, they have to undo before they do it up. This one is fresh, green and it is ready. So a lot of developers find this exciting.'

Even so, say industry experts, developing such a niche property will not be easy, even for likely developers in the league of Dubai's Jumeirah or Singapore-based Amanresorts and Banyan Tree. The well-heeled are notoriously hard to attract and entertain.

For the breed that populates such exclusive millionaires' playgrounds as Monte Carlo and Nice, 'there must be relaxation of rules', said Mr Charles Tee, CEO of hospitality solutions group Gustodian. Even if the islands offer top-notch resort facilities and services, he pointed out, the rich and famous still look for 'very flexible rules'.

For instance, he said: 'For the well-heeled, they want to have privacy, even sail in and out on their own. 'But here, they will have to contend with authorities, who require boat owners to have piloting licences or have their boats piloted by qualified boat captains.'

Mrs Lee said nothing is firmed up for the islands. 'We are exploring what works best,' she said. 'We're asking developers what they want to see. A lot of it is like matchmaking.'

Mr Gordon Lam, who lived on St John's Island until he was eight, sees the planned development as part of modernisation, but he's reluctant to see the islands' rural past fade. The 50-year-old landscape contractor and resident of Bukit Panjang, recalls having to ride a sampan to primary school from St John's, where his father was stationed as a medical officer. 'We had chickens and ducks in the house and I ran around naked on the beach,' he recalls.

He also remembers a time when Lazarus Island was still two islets - Pulau Renget and Pulau Sakijang Pelepah. 'If you told the local boatmen, you tell them 'Lazarus Island', the fellow won't even know,' he says. 'Now, only school children go there for holiday camping,' he says. 'I don't know much about commercialism, but if you really want to retain that flavour, you have to go back to bare necessities.'

Copyright 2006 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

bluebabe has written an open letter to REACH: "An open letter to REACH, on proposed developments in the Southern Islands." By bluebabe. Musings of a barefoot traveller, 01 Dec 2006.

"I read with interest the news articles recently on developing the Southern Islands off Sentosa into a playground of the rich and famous. Although I'm glad these lovely islands are in the limelight and receiving attention to promote them as attractions, I view the proposed plans with some trepidation.

As a nature guide with the Blue Water Volunteers' ReefWalk programme, I have brought numerous visitors to explore the marine life on the reefs of Kusu Island on several occasions. Over the months, we have spotted myriad creatures including dolphins, stingrays, anemone shrimps, clownfishes, seastars, and a hodgepodge of brilliantly patterned flatworms and sea slugs, as well as entertained and educated over a thousand enthusiastic visitors.

Many of the articles mention some form of development- luxury homes, hotels, spas, or even a second Palm Island. Ms Pamelia Lee was even quoted on Channelnews Asia as saying that plans to use coral stone as construction material would be considered! Remarks like these make nature lovers wonder if the existing, natural marine life holds any importance in the minds of the planners. Corals are living things, the very foundation of the coral reef ecosystem, and are so slow-growing they only extend by a couple of centimetres a year! Furthermore, it is doubtful that any medium to large scale works will have little impact on the surrounding reefs, which have already endured so much stress from decades from reclamation and dredging works.

Why am I making so much noise about these supposed 'murky water' reefs?

Simply put, I love Singapore's reefs. I've dived at Sipadan, Manado, Lembeh, Okinawa, the Andaman Sea and Florida, and in all honesty, I still rank Singapore among my best dives ever. I pursued the elusive soft coral cowrie on two trips to macro-heaven Lembeh Straits, only to find out that a volunteer [Pulau] Hantu Blog dive guide recently photographed 3 (!) at Pulau Hantu. When the waters clear (through some fluke of currents or a reduction in coastal development intensity), the colours and sights to be seen are truly dazzling. Researchers in Singapore still find new records of marine life, if only the reefs and shores remain for them to explore. These reefs, although small, are products of millenia of existence and evolution, creating a world full of wonder and complexities, something that man could never hope to replicate.

I hope Singapore's reefs could find a place in the hearts and minds of the people planning the latest slew of Southern Island developments."

Islands Plenty." By Neil Humphreys. Today, 02 Dec 2006. Kusu and St John's are priceless jewels for all Singaporeans. Down Under with Neil Humphreys; news@newstoday.com.sg

I LOVE the public toilets on Kusu Island. In the last two years, I must have used their services more often than I used an ATM.

I had popped over to the sacred island in a desperate attempt to calm my nerves and save my internal organs from being sucked out via bodily waste.

It was this newspaper's anniversary, and our fledgling band, of which I was a member, had been booked to entertain half of MediaCorp.

My role was pivotal. I played the tambourine.

I was so nervous I spent the entire morning imprinting the toilet seat onto my bottom.

Out of desperation, I decided to visit Kusu Island because it was the ninth Lunar month and I thought the sea air might stop me emitting more noise than the brass section of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

It didn't work. The choppy waves had me sounding like a human trumpet, but I did fall in love with the island.

It is impossible not to like Kusu Island. Just 5.6km from Singapore, it's accessible, but remote: A decent size for a brisk, coastal walk, but intimate.

The island has daft, but entertaining, legends about giant tortoises and shipwrecked sailors, an attractive Chinese temple, three keramats (shrines) at the top of a leafy hillock, undisturbed beaches, some snorkelling, a little indigenous wildlife and well-maintained, fully-functioning public facilities.

I can testify to the last part. And so can my bottom.

Kusu is a tiny green jewel in Singapore's treasure chest and managed to take my mind off my rock music debut. It paid off. I never played the wrong note once on the tambourine.

Earlier this year, I returned to Kusu to research a travel book on Singapore. Out of season, the island was largely deserted except for half a dozen Germans with appalling taste in swimwear.

I eventually wrote in the book: "Rock stars are always bitching about travelling to the far ends of the Earth to find an exclusive beach. Nonsense. Come to Kusu Island. Privacy is guaranteed. No one will ever find you."

One or two civil servants might have taken those words rather literally.

For the book, I also ventured over to St John's Island for the first time.

I went partly because I'd never been there, but largely because I'd read it had once been a cholera colony and I'm a macabre bugger.

It wasn't just any cholera colony. This is Singapore, remember. It was one of the world's best. Around the 1930s, St John's was considered to be the largest quarantine centre. I'm not sure why someone would want to compile such statistics, but there you go.

It's certainly another one for the encyclopaedia: No 1 airport, No 1 public transport system, No 1 smiling campaign and No 1 centre for cholera victims.

If that fun fact is not worthy of a National Heritage Board plaque, then frankly, I don't know what is.

I was hoping to stumble across the odd spooky cemetery or jump into a scene from The Blair Witch Project. Instead, I walked onto the set of Escape from Alcatraz.

Whatever wildlife and rich biodiversity there was (and there was plenty), it was overshadowed by the barbed wire and the watchtowers around the former detention centre.

Unimpressed, I wrote in the book that whatever redevelopment plans the Gahmen had for St John's Island, they should be executed quickly. But I never expected this.

Like some Singaporeans, I was utterly bewildered by the announcement this week of plans to turn six of the southern islands into a playground for the super-rich.

Apparently, Sentosa Cove is not enough for the yachting class so the city-state's tiny size must accommodate another private resort.

Competing with premier city destinations like Dubai, Singapore may well need to woo the high-end tourist dollar, but it must also reserve enough space for Singaporeans, young and old, to roam around a bit.

As someone who has long recognised the commendable efforts made to preserve, and enhance, the greenery of this unique garden city, it comes as a shock that the predictable Dubai route is now being advocated.

Considering they are part of a country that will always be limited by its geography, the southern islands offer so much potential. They could really be developed into something special for all Singaporeans to share.

Neil Humphreys is the author of the Singapore best-seller Final Notes from A Great Island. Being a Singapore travel book, it includes the southern islands.

Posted at 2:05AM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | email | Raffles Museum news