Stories > True Blues
Marine conservation efforts in Singapore have begun to send out ripples, thanks to a bold few who saw the threats and treasures ahead of time.
By Karenne Tun
Futurist Arthur C. Clark once observed: “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.” It reminds us that we terrestrial humans inhabit a mostly watery planet. Our somewhat blinkered association with the land makes us overlook the oceans’ importance to our very existence, for reasons from food to climate.
The health of the oceans has suffered greatly because of mankind. It continues to decline alarmingly due to indiscriminate exploitation of marine resources, and because its waters are used as a dumping ground for anything and everything we do not want on land.
There is a marine environmental crisis looming.
It is a significant part of the overall environmental crisis seizing the planet. Humanity’s collective conscience is acknowledging it through rising social environmental advocacy and activism for the oceans. Luminaries like Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, David Suzuki and Sir David Attenborough have worked to spread awareness and conservation initiatives tosave not just terrestrial biodiversity, but the oceans — upon which all life on Earth depend. Back at home, the actions of three extraordinary individuals — Francis Lee, Ria Tan and Dr Chua Ee Kiam — have been instrumental in raising marine awareness beyond our shores. These are their stories.
Francis Lee is many things — intelligent, charismatic, passionate about his beliefs, articulate and independent-minded. Wait-and-see is not his style. Walking the talk is, and it’s made him something of a maverick.
“When I was a biology student on field trips in Singapore in the ‘60s, I was enthralled by the beauty of our reefs and the marine life that teemed in crystal-clear waters around our southern islands,” remembers Lee, a recreational boater and scuba diver. But by the time he became the first Singaporean Commodore of the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club in the mid-’80s, he realised things were changing fast. “This was almost all but lost.
It troubled me to see this wanton destruction — much of it preventable.”
It spurred him to mastermind the Reef Survey and Conservation Project, Singapore’s first coordinated coral reef conservation programme, in the late ‘80s. Funded by local business communities, it was implemented by volunteers trained and led by Singapore’s pioneering marine biologist Professor Chou Loke Ming and his team. It marked the birth of Singapore’s marine conservation movement.
Believing that pragmatism and constructive engagement trumps blind confrontation, Lee spearheaded gatherings, meetings and forums engaging the government’s top brass, industry leaders, high-flying professionals and everyday people over the next 25 years. He was a pioneering member of the Marine Round Table forum initiated in 2006, and chaired the International Year of the Reef Singapore campaign in 2008. This led to the Blue Plan, a comprehensive, fact-driven proposal by the people to the government with specific recommendations and strategies for saving Singapore’s remaining marine biodiversity.
With a diverse bunch of kindred spirits, he then looked beyond Singapore’s waters and began a series of marine expeditions to document the marine parks of “Aseanarean”, a term he coined to reflect the geographical and maritime importance of the ASEAN region and its biological, social and cultural diversity — greater than the Caribbean and the Mediterranean combined. “(ASEAN’s) marine environment has the highest marine biodiversity in the world,” he stresses. It is also where much is being lost. The Aseanarean expedition books — Marine Parks of Thailandand Marine Parks of Indonesia — show what the region has, and…
…what Lee hopes can be saved when people realize the superlative beauty and diversity in the waters of which Singapore is a part.
“Singapore championed sustainable development to the world during the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. However, we have been laggard in practicing this at home, especially in the marine realm. But we are at last playing ‘catch-up’,” he says. “The Mega Marine Biodiversity Survey (Singapore’s largest ever, a three-year marine biodiversity study) recently launched by National Parks will yield a treasure trove of scientific knowledge on our remaining endemic marine flora and fauna. I hope this will spur Singapore and Singaporeans to conserve it.”
Ria Tan isn’t a typical retiree. Cheerful, active, bold and driven, she has more zest than most people half her age. Without a background in biology but with a tenacious desire to learn, Ria landed on Singapore’s marine conservation map with a single-minded personal mission to document all of Singapore’s intertidal habitats (the zone between high and low tides) before they disappear.
“Every shore I’ve seen has been full of life,” says Tan. “I now regularly monitor about 40 shores at low tide.” Her countless hours combing these places — often at ungodly hours dictated by the tides and sometimes in inhospitable weather — has outstripped the combined efforts of many biologists. “I first got involved in marine issues working on Chek Jawa (a mudflat on Pulau Ubin) before its reclamation was deferred in 2001,” says Tan. “I was enchanted by Chek Jawa — amazing sea creatures of all kinds! But I had no idea what I was looking at, and I was desolate to hear about the impending reclamation.
The only thing I could do as an ordinary person then was to share it through the web and bring as many people as possible to see Chek Jawa. I was astounded when reclamation was deferred (in December 2001).” Within a decade, Tan has become one of the most respected naturalists in Singapore. Her website — WildSingapore.com — has become the go-to resource for almost anyone studying Singapore’s biodiversity.
“Even if a shore is not slated for development,” says Tan, “it may be impacted by nearby developments — coastal works, shipping activities, climate change events like coral bleaching and excessive rainfall. So every one of the 40 shores is like Chek Jawa to me. I feel the relentless pressure to share what can be found, highlight threats, and keep up with issues that impact them.”
Ria regularly engages people through online updates on global conservation news, blogs, social media and publications — all while running her independent marine surveys and helping coordinate larger efforts like the International Year of the Reef 2008 initiative and the three-year Mega Marine Survey of Singapore now underway.
“There’s so much variety, so easy to see.
No need to dive, no need to swim, no need to travel to the Great Barrier Reef! We have octopuses, shrimps and anemones, giant clams, sharks, dugongs, and sea turtles!
What I can do is show people what we have, and leave it to each person to decide what it means to them.” Tan was once asked if she visited intertidal areas in neighbouring countries. Her reply: “I don’t have the time! I have yet to visit all the intertidal areas in Singapore!”
Dr Chua Ee Kiam is a thoughtful person. He steps with care and purpose through bush and shore, usually with a camera; his observations of the wide landscape and its little details are done with a deliberate eye. In that manner, he has brought Singapore’s nature to us through his words and images.
The relationship between man and the marine environment is a delicate one that is very special to him. “Just peering at the edge of our shores at low tide is a magical experience,“ says Dr Chua. “Our marine environment is home to the most exquisite and diverse assembly of creatures. However, we are not protecting it enough. We are a rapidly developing city state with a burgeoning population. It inevitably means there will be more trash to dispose, some of which will be filtered to the seas. There is also greater sedimentation of our waters due to industrialisation. Multiplying these threats globally, the oceans’ buffering capacity is being compromised and marine life is degrading.
“This careless treatment cannot go on forever,” he says.
“A declining fish population is not an option. We all have to do our part for the environment, and inspire others to do likewise.”
His dental profession did not distract him from his mission. Maintaining strict discipline in the evenings after work, Dr Chua put together his first book, Nature in Singapore — Ours to Protect in 1993. Many see it as a watershed moment introducing Singapore’s natural heritage in pictures and prose to the layman. He went on to publish three other books revealing Singapore’s marine life — Chek Jawa: Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity, Pulau Ubin: Ours to Treasure and Singapore’s Splendour – Life on the Edge. They share with us his personal discovery of Singapore’s marine dimension.
“With awareness and knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding, people will want to do their part to conserve nature,” believes Dr Chua. “Through my images and books, I hope segments of the public will be enlightened and stirred into doing their part for the environment.