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Pulling together to turn the tide for Chek Jawa
Lydia Lim, the Straits Times, 29 Dec 01

On-line version on Straits Times Interactive

Pulling together to turn the tide for Chek Jawa

This year, some nature-loving members of the public found and helped save a beautiful beach on Pulau Ubin called Chek Jawa. Our correspondent traces how their efforts led to a rare policy U-turn in Singapore.

It was by chance that botanist Joseph Lai, 41, stumbled on the lagoon and sand bars of Tanjung Chek Jawa in January. He was acting as a volunteer guide for some students from Raffles Girls' School, who were exploring the coastal forests in the area. They just happened to be there when the tide was low, and he remembers that the richness of the marine habitat left him 'speechless with wonder'.

A few weeks later, he learned that the beach at the eastern tip of Pulau Ubin was to be reclaimed. 'This time, I was shocked,' he recalls.

In May, during a public forum organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to discuss land use, he made an impassioned plea to the Government to save Chek Jawa.

It was at the forum, chaired by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, that the issue was aired in public for the first time. 'I sincerely believe that there are a lot of people who, like me, care for the nature areas left in Singapore. 'Since I know about Chek Jawa, the most natural thing for me to do is to share the knowledge that there is a wonderful marine habitat here,' he told Insight in an e-mail reply.

At that point, few people knew about Chek Jawa's sand and mud flats, rich with sand dollars and other types of starfish, sea horses and octopi.

Or its sea-grass meadows that harbour carpet and peacock anemones.

Or the coral rubble that is home to sponges of various hues.

Chek Jawa is actually a collection of six distinct habitats - coastal forest, mangrove, sandy beach, sand and mud flats, coral rubble and a tiny island called Pulau Sekudu, or Frog Island. It is unique because all these different habitats are clustered in an area just 1 sq km in size.

Even members of the Nature Society were new to the site, having discovered it only at the end of last year. It was like finding 'a rich family heirloom secreted among your junk', says the society's president, Dr Geh Min.

Since then, Dr Geh has been reflecting on how the group's members could have missed this treasure. 'Our marine sub-group members were more focused on coral reefs, they were used to diving for what they wanted to see. 'The terrestrial people were aware that Ubin has valuable mangrove swamps and bird life... I guess you could say it was a case of over-specialisation,' she notes wryly. As a result, no one from the society alerted the National Development Ministry to the significance of Chek Jawa as a nature area.

Back in 1992, the Government approved plans to reclaim the beach and other parts of Pulau Ubin to create 'reserve land' that would eventually be used for military training. By the time Mr Lai spoke up at the public forum, it was just six months before reclamation was due to start last month.

Time was running out for Chek Jawa. The action was fast and furious in the next few months as marine biologists, research officers and lay people descended on Chek Jawa to survey its bio-diversity, collect specimens and photograph the area.

The National Parks Board (NParks) asked Dr Tan Koh Siang and other marine biologists from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Tropical Marine Science Institute for their input. They reported that Chek Jawa was indeed unique, and one of the few estuarine eco-systems left here.

Dr Tan adds: 'There are several organisms that are unique to the existing eco-systems that we have, such as the large starfish of the genus Protoreaster. 'The main attraction is the sea grass; I have not seen that in such abundance anywhere else in Singapore.'

At the same time, research officers from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research embarked on a salvage operation, after they were alerted by NParks of the site's pending reclamation.

Located at NUS, the museum has one of the largest collections of South-east Asian fauna in the world. The officers launched three field expeditions - each lasting two days - in May, July and August. The aim was to collect samples that represented the site's bio-diversity. They thought it was their last chance to get such a record.

At the end of the field trips, research officer N. Sivasothi and some other volunteers decided that Chek Jawa was a secret that should be shared. So they invited more people there. 'We wanted to sow memories of the place and to teach people about their own heritage,' he says.

Through the museum's electronic newsletter, they announced that they would be holding two public education weekends, one in September and the other in October.

The response was overwhelming. About 1,000 people turned up for the October weekend, with the last visitor getting back to Changi jetty only at 10.30 pm on one night.

Spurred by their enthusiasm, the organisers decided to go one step further: They would document people's reactions during those visits and send them to the National Development Minister. They wanted the Government to know that many well-travelled Singaporeans who visited Chek Jawa said they never expected to find such a place in their own backyard. Mr Sivasothi and his friends also included their suggestions on how Chek Jawa could be turned into a marine park and how to manage the flow of visitors.

At the same time, nature lovers, teachers and Pulau Ubin residents were writing to the press and the ministry, urging a review of the reclamation plans.

The appeals were not in the form of letters alone. The URA says that among the 30 appeals it received were CD-ROMs, field data and detailed reports on Chek Jawa's bio-diversity.

Dr Geh and Dr Chua Ee Kiam, author of several nature books including Pulau Ubin - Ours To Treasure, wrote to The Straits Times Forum page, while part-time lecturer and self-described social activist Nga Thio Ping came up with a petition and collected hundreds of signatures during his bicycle rides round Ubin.

The 53-year-old, who made 'six or seven' submissions to the ministry, recalls that things did not look promising even as late as September. In fact, the atmosphere at one public seminar about Pulau Ubin, held that month, was practically funereal. 'Everyone was very despondent. They were preparing for Chek Jawa's burial and saying, 'Better go and have a last look before they close the casket',' he notes.

The ministry told the interested parties to be patient.

Two months passed.

In November, Mr Nga went cycling on Ubin again and saw power cables which, he thought, were being laid in preparation for the reclamation.

On Dec 20, all the individuals who had spoken up, written in or submitted reports to the Government to urge the preservation of Chek Jawa received a surprise. They were invited for a closed-door meeting at the National Development Ministry, during which Mr Mah announced that Chek Jawa would not be reclaimed. Those who attended the meeting say Mr Mah also told them that the data they had sent in had helped. He asked them for more feedback on how to protect the marine life at Chek Jawa, given that other parts of Ubin would be reclaimed.

Some walked out of the two-hour meeting too stunned to say much.

Needless to say, all who attended were elated at the outcome. Many, including Mr Nga, had words of praise for the minister. 'Compliments to Mr Mah for taking a personal interest and undertaking a review of the initial decision to reclaim the site. I welcome this possibility of reversals and the entertaining of last-ditch attempts,' he told Insight.

When word got round via the Internet, some Singaporeans indulged in a rare show of exuberance. One posting on the Chek Jawa homepage, created by nature lover Ria Tan, reads: 'What a wonderful Christmas and New Year present from MND - even the starfish on the beach are smiling, I bet!'

The man who first turned the spotlight on Chek Jawa, Mr Joseph Lai, says the efforts of a whole range of individuals ensured the beach's survival. 'People made the difference. Ordinary people from all walks of life - families, students, teachers, nature lovers, government people, etc,' he says.

All of those interviewed agree that the groundswell of public support was a crucial factor.

They also credit the policy- makers for their eagerness to listen to other points of view, and for being curious enough to visit Chek Jawa and check it out for themselves. Among those who visited the site were Mr Mah, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Yong Soon, the URA chief, and Dr Tan Wee Kiat, who heads NParks.

Marine biologist Tan Koh Siang lauds the willingness to consider views from different groups of people as 'a very important advancement'. 'We probably can't expect a similar decision to be made every time we make noise, but I think this is one habitat that is quite unique and, hopefully, we'll be able to protect it,' he says.

Dr Geh argues that Chek Jawa's potential to benefit future generations is precisely what differentiates it from the old National Library building, which many members of the public had also fought to save.

'The approach is essentially pragmatic rather than sentimental. I don't think that government policy has changed since the National Library. 'I think they are thinking of how they can benefit future generations,' she says.

In the case of the library, the main reason for people wanting to keep it was their many 'happy associations' with the building, notes the granddaughter of late philanthropist Lee Kong Chian, who donated money to build the library as a gift to the people of Singapore. 'I don't think this Government gives in to public sentiment just for public sentiment's sake,' she says matter-of-factly.

With Chek Jawa, the reasons for protecting it extend beyond nostalgia.

The area's marine bio-diversity means it has something to offer future generations of Singaporeans in terms of education, recreation and scientific research.

Mr Sivasothi thinks the rational discussion that evolved between non-government and government individuals also helped ensure a happy outcome. 'On conservation issues, examples from overseas tend to be confrontational.'

'Here, we have evolved a more discussive approach. It was very civilised, less emotional - everyone presented the facts,' he says. Chek Jawa, he says, is a flagship of what can be achieved through public feedback.

This gives an added dimension to a site already so rich naturally. Says Dr Geh: 'When you go there, you can feel that you helped to save it.'

'The Government listens...but people must speak up! I have always believed that just as people are the soul of a nation, nature areas are the pulse of a landscape. They never fail to invite us to ask the 'big' questions about life, family, home and country.'
Botanist Joseph Lai, 41, the first person to make the issue of Chek Jawa public when he raised it at a forum in May

'This is a rich teaching ground for students. If we don't have actual sites for them to get their hands dirty, they will only study science from their personal computers and we won't get the kind of scientists we need.'
Part-time lecturer Nga Thio Ping, 53, who wrote a petition and collected hundreds of signatures on bicycle rides round Pulau Ubin

'Chek Jawa is like an icon of the effectiveness of public consultation. When you go there, you can feel that you helped to save it.'
Dr Geh Min
President of the Nature Society of Singapore

'This has been an amazing year, not just because of Chek Jawa but also the gazetting of two new nature reserves at Labrador Park and Sungei Buloh. Space is such a crazy issue here but the Government is trying to do what it can.'
Mr N. Sivasothi
Research officer at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research

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