habitatnews Commentary

Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin,
what does your heart tell you?

An open letter by Tan Choon Ming,
6th August 2001

Tan Choon Ming is the lone cyclist mentioned in the recent issue of Habitatnews (No. 2001-15). These comments were posted on the Nature-Singapore mailing list on Monday night (6 Aug), and I received permission the next morning to reproduce the letter at theHabitatnews webpage. As we cycled the island each Sunday in July, we witnessed his passion as he traversed Pulau Ubin, explaining the fate of Chek Jawa, and urging a first and probably last visit to the endangered marine habitat. His comments reflect this passion.

Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin, what does your heart tell you?
An open letter by Tan Choon Ming, 6th August 2001

6th Aug 2001

The Forum Editor
The Straits Times

Lianhe Zaobao

Nature Society (Singapore)

Dear Sir or Madam:


I am writing to express my discontent over landfill works that is scheduled to proceed within the next few months at Tanjong Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin.

Why has wild nature got no argument stance for its own preservation in Singapore, I question. The conservation versus development of Tg. Chek Jawa is another example to highlight the weak voice for nature conservation in this country.

The land scarcity reasoning given for development of natural spaces has become almost a cliche. Is it not also true that through construction activities that we maintain our internationally robust economic growth figure? The reclamation or robbing of P. Ubin's natural coastline would certainly add a few seemingly impressive percentage points to the nation's economic report. We therefore conclude that a stunning economic growth index is only a mask for environmental destruction.

The scale of the landfill project planned for P. Ubin justifies the term destruction. Imagine the gargantuan quantity of earth needed to fill the coastline from the jetty eastwards to Tg. Chek Jawa, including P. Sekudu, then up north wiping out the entire mud and sand flat of Chek Jawa. The loss of wildlife will be tremendous. But most Singaporeans would not feel any pinch of guilt even though it occurs right here in our own backyard. Needless to mention, we don't even ask from where is the earth coming from? Are we robbing earth and causing substantial environmental degradation elsewhere to feed our obsession for economic development? Where is the justification for environmental equity?

In our anthropocentric society, any piece of ground has to have a land use that benefits human welfare. To do this, the land is valued in terms of dollars and cents. In the context of current economics, wetlands such as that found at Chek Jawa is useless wasteland, which has practically nil prospects for GNP contribution. Direct educational and eco-tourism utilization would not usher huge investments. So, in our ever pragmatic mindsets, extrinsic values such as experiential learning and nature appreciation do not make sense because we cannot reap huge profits in the short term.

That leaves long term, indirect and intrinsic benefits hardly any voice for nature conservation in Singapore.

In a recent attempt to carry out a global assessment of ecosystems (Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems or PAGE), researchers focus on ecosystem goods and services such as water cleansing services, biodiversity goods, carbon sequestration and tourism etc. They hope that by evaluating ecosystem sustainability based on goods and services, they can produce a report relevant to conventional economics. But they also admit that due to difficulties and improbabilities of attaching monetary figures to natural goods and services, the grounds for maintaining the quality and quantity of life sustaining ecosystems on Earth are not strong.

Honestly, how much are you willing to pay to provide nursery grounds at Chek Jawa for marine wildlife? Do you have the farsightedness to allow the seagrasses and other marine flora on the sand flat to function as carbon sinks to slow down global climate change? Would you set aside Chek Jawa, our last extensive intertidal national heritage for the educational benefits of our children?

As world renowned ecologist Edward Wilson once said, nature conservation requires a certain degree of eco-ethics in people, an appreciation and respect for the other components of our biosphere. Do we Singaporeans have such an eco-ethic? We are developed and cultured in many ways, possess material wealth, live in comfortable air-conditioned clean and green surroundings.

But have we lost the eco-ethics of younger days, inculcated in rustic, relatively simple and natural Kampung environments? Have we lost the love for a place? Have the artificialness all around us changed our perception of what is natural? Are we too pampered by all the man-made conveniences to act on behalf of wilderness for its existence? Are we resigning ourselves too easily to fate laid out in inflexible development plans?

Most Singaporeans, I assume, after all the media publicity are aware of Chek Jawa's plight. And of those whom I know, feel that this place deserve conservation. But few are prepared to participate, let alone empower themselves to conserve our natural heritage.

A few weeks back, I was playing with a bunch of kids at Chek Jawa. I was explaining to them why there were balls of sand on the beach, how the flat was formed etc. That short encounter prompted me to distribute information leaflets to hasten increasing public awareness on Chek Jawa. I have been doing that for the last three weekends on P. Ubin. I requested the people whom I approached to voice their thoughts and feelings regarding Chek Jawa and P. Ubin by writing to the newspapers. This I hoped would generate more interest and perhaps gather support for the conservation of a nationally important habitat threatened by landfill.

Of the nearly 600 leaflets I have given out so far, the responses I had were in overall favourable. Most are aware of the situation at Chek Jawa; they found out about it through the newspapers and television. They also revealed that had not the media reported on Chek Jawa, they would not have known about it. As the media have told all there is to know on the problem, the leaflets simply serve to remind them that hope is not all lost for Chek Jawa and P. Ubin. It is truly heartening to learn that some of the recipients actually intend to publish the conservation versus development issue in their companies' in-house newsletter. Some in fact brought more friends to experience P. Ubin on subsequent weekends.

However, 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. What was most disheartening and disturbing was with the withdrawal of Chek Jawa internet websites which addresses I printed on the leaflets. Of the two website addresses, one withdrew and the other enabled password only access after I started my endeavour to give out information leaflets.

This unspoken fear and sensitiveness need no explanation. But of which I feel is another reason why the conservation voice in Singapore is weak or rather, restrained to understandable but regrettable proportions.

If we truly love a person, we would stand up to protect her or him. Cannot this same rationale be applied to a place, a naturally created place home to an amazing diversity of marine wildlife? Where is our graciousness? Where is the graciousness espoused so frequently some time ago by the authorities?

A local NGO has taken upon the reactionary task of transplanting seagrasses found at Chek Jawa mud and sand flat to a site near Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. I myself was involved in this minuscule rescue work. This response is appropriately called compensation in EIA terminology - making up for what is lost to development. Such actions have been lambasted by environmentalists and conservationists in western countries. Carried out repeatedly enough, it has the danger of becoming a standard procedure or nonchalant excuse for outright environmental destruction.

Develop blindly according to what has been fixed in development plans drawn out years ago and recreate on artificial grounds elsewhere what was sacrificed in the honourable process of economic development.

No two wetlands are alike. Each has its own characteristic, created by a chanced occurrence of multiple environmental influences. Take for example the mud and sand flat at Chek Jawa. How was it formed, has anybody asked? Nature did not create it overnight. Coral growth probably created a shallower marine environment. Sea currents flowing in an easterly direction carried available sediments from the west and deposited them on the sheltered coast of eastern P. Ubin at Chek Jawa. Imagine the years it took for nature to raise the seafloor by laying down layer after layer of sediments. Biological life drifted in from elsewhere by chance to colonize the flat as it slowly built up, progressing in a succession of communities called seres. This ultimately reached a climax ecological community in what we see, feel, hear, smell and experience today on the mud and sand flat of Chek Jawa. These flora and fauna thrive only in conditions made possible by the specific location: sunlight penetration into the shallow gradient, diurnal tidal influences, duration of exposure, substrate texture, nutrient replenishment, salinity variation and factors "upstream" of Chek Jawa etc. And as I learnt from many P. Ubin residents, villagers once had the pleasure of seeing sea cows swim in these very waters.

Imagine all that. Does that mean anything to you? Can you price that? Does that not have any argument stance against the claws of development in Singapore? Probably not in all our anthropocentric demands for more land and more economic growth.

Imagine: in less than a few months, barges will come in from elsewhere and dump more earth than you can imagine all along P. Ubin's southeastern coastline from the jetty eastwards engulfing P. Sekudu and onto the impressive mud and sand flat of Chek Jawa. Humans in our arrogance undeniably dominate nature in this inevitable scenario. What took her decades and centuries to grow, we wipe it out with a flick of the finger.

This step is irreversible. Once a place is lost, it is lost forever. We protect the person we love. We can also conserve the place we love. When the place loses its character, its special meaning in our hearts also washes away with the sea current. I ask, what else is there to protect anymore?

Yours sincerely,

(via e-mail)

Tan Choon Ming

Attachment: Chek Jawa information leaflet

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