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Chek Jawa: Anatomy of a U-turn
Chua Lee Hoong, the Straits Times, 2 Jan 02

It was a day the Government showed itself open to the merits of persuasive argument from citizens

Some years ago, hearing, accurately or not, that Pulau Sekudu was to be blasted out of existence, I rustled up a group of friends to pay a final homage to the tiny island off Pulau Ubin. It was no more than a rock outcrop, really, and at high tide, our canoes—we had come by sea from Changi—manoeuvred in and out among the mangroves easily as we dallied amid what we thought was a sight we would not be seeing for long.

So it has been with more than casual interest that I have been following the saga of Chek Jawa, that eastern tip of Pulau Ubin which I now know is where Pulau Sekudu nestles. I have never thought of the area as a beach, far less known about the treasure trove of marine lift it contains. Sand dollar? Carpet anemones? Sand stars? These are new terms I have added to my vocabulary in recent weeks.

The saga has been fascinating, and a testament to how far Singapore has come.

Ten years ago, I doubt there would have been that much public sympathy for the conservationists. The few Singaporeans who felt strongly about Chek Jawa's preservation would have fought a lonesome battle, their voices lost in a wilderness of booming economic growth and the pursuit of more immediate material gratification.

Today, however, public support has been generous. Mr Nga Thio Ping, a part-time lecturer, managed to collect hundreds of signatures for his petitions to the Government, urging a rethink of the plan, conceived 10 years ago, to pile on the sand to turn Chek Jawa into solid land that can be used for military training.

He got his wish in time for Christmas. Just days before reclamation was due to begin, the Ministry of National Development announced that Chek Jawa would be saved. The ministry "had carefully considered all public submissions" and done "extensive consultations" among government agencies and marine-life experts.

It was a classic civil-service understatement for what was in effect a major policy U-turn.

As recently as in July, in a letter published in this newspaper, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) had reiterated its stand in favour of reclamation, arguing that government agencies had done studies of the marine life in the area and found nothing seriously at risk from reclamation.

The National Parks Board, it added, was working on transplanting plants affected by the reclamation work to other parts of the island.

So why they change?

Perhaps the sea creatures worked their charms on National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and his staff when they visited the mud flats recently. More specifically, perhaps it was was the dugong, the otter-like sea mammal which some say is the original of the mermaid.

Perhaps the strength of public opinion contributed to the change. Singaporeans are becoming more environmentally-conscious—a survey by the Singapore Environmental Council in June confirmed the trend. If so, the Dec 20 switch in policy was merely official thinking keeping step with public sentiment.

Or perhaps it was the merits of the case itself. Very little is lost, after all, by preserving Chek Jawa, and much to be gained.

The Ministry of Defence is not in immediate need of land for military training. Its collaboration with armed forces elsewhere has yielded many alternative sites.

On the positive side, as members of the Nature Society have taken pains to point out, Chek Jawa offers scope for a wide range of activities.

The area is a "natural outdoor classroom" which may be used to value-add to the school curriculum, said Dr Vilma D'Rozario of the society in a letter published in this newspaper last week. "Opportunities abound for multi-disciplinary, collaborative project work, learning, observing, experimenting, analysing, synthesising, applying and hypothesising".

Then there is the area's potential for research in biomedicine and life sciences.

As Ms Gwee Jin Eng wrote in the Business Times on Nov 5, arguing for the "bioprospecting" potential of Chek Jawa: "Because of the numerous species of coastal marine life, prospecting holds great promise for generating million or even billion of dollars of income in future through patents and sales of useful chemical and other substances discovered at Chek Jawa".

Her argument was probably a winner, given that life sciences dominate the policy-making horizon these days.

Beyond personal sentiments, public opinion and the future uses of Chek Jawa however, I would like to think of DEC 20 in another way: It was not so much about a policy turn-around but a turning point in the relationship between state and civil society.

It was a day the Government proved itself responsive to public feedback, a day it showed itself open to the merits of persuasive argument from citizens.

It was a victory for civil society but, with the many public commendations heaped on the ministry in its aftermath, it was also a sweet day for the Government. This, surely, is a what a win-win is all about.

On the part of Chek Jawa activists, they showed how to make their case and win it. On the Internet, in the newspapers and in public forums, these concerned Singaporeans pleaded their cause, passionately but rationally and with civility at all times.

They were creative and diligent in their work: The URA says for instance that among the 30 appeals it received were CD-ROM, field data and detailed reports on Chek Jawa's bio-diversity.

On the part of the policy-makers, they showed themselves open to new facts and arguments. They did not allow themselves to be bound by past policy. When it made more sense to change, they changed.

The change gains greater significance in the light of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's announcement this week about the setting up of a new committee to look into how to remake Singapore politically, socially and culturally.

If Chek Jawa is anything to go by, it gives hope to all civil-society players who have ever advocated some policy change or other. Meanwhile, it's time for another canoe-trip.

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