Thursday, May 1, 2008

Has the "green" agenda has gained prominence in recent times?

I would like to share my project with two of my coursemates (Adeline Lee and Ng Pui San), which is an assignment done for our module "Changing landscapes of Singapore".

The "green" agenda has gained prominence in recent times.
A case study of Chek Jawa and Labrador Park in Singapore


Since the late 1950s, Singapore has been undergoing rapid industrialization and urbanization and these developments require the expansion of the built environment (Ooi, 2002). All these were done at the expense of our biodiverse areas. Tan et. al. (1995) stated that Singapore lies in a region considered as one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity in the world. However, Singapore is faced with land scarcity and development was crucial for the young nation back then. Nevertheless, Singapore has established a relatively strong reputation in the region for its successful environmental management program (Ooi, 2002), but its efforts were often said be following a 'brown' agenda rather than a 'green' agenda (Teo et. al., 2004). Moreover, environmental management suggests to only extending to areas that contribute to the economic development of the state (Savage, 2004). It is therefore no surprise that the developmental state prefers orderly cities in a manicured garden rather than conservation of disorderly wilderness (Sodhi et. al., 2008).

According to Teo et. al. (2004), a 'brown' agenda refers to human interventions where priority is given to developmental goals where 'end of the pipe' pollution control is usually enforced. However, a 'green' agenda refers to considering the original state of nature which is more important than development or intervention. It is also where money is parted and land is set aside in order to give priority to nature. Singapore, with its highly centralized approach, embraces a 'brown' agenda so as to ensure a controlled and sanitized environment (Teo et. al., 2004). On the other hand, the state has been largely ambivalent towards a 'green' agenda (Ooi, 2002).

A case study on Chek Jawa and Labrador Park in terms of marine intertidal habitats will be used to discuss if 'green' agendas are gaining prominence recently in Singapore. Chek Jawa was deferred from reclamation on 14 January 2002 while Labrador Park was re-gazetted as nature reserve on 1 January 2002. The proximity of these dates makes both areas appropriate for comparison. Firstly, 'green' agenda with relations to the state and citizens will be discussed. Secondly, analysis will be conducted on Chek Jawa and Labrador Park in terms of their history and attention given. Finally, this study will end off discussing on the future of these two nature places with a conclusion of the 'green' agenda in Singapore.

The State and the citizens of Singapore

Since 1960s, various plans and planning visions have been undertaken by the state to avoid the prospect of turning into a concrete jungle (Teo et. al., 2004). Other than engineering green landscapes, some efforts were also looked upon to conserve certain biodiverse areas in Singapore. The state’s interest to protect the natural heritage was evident in 1993 through the Green Plan. In this plan, a total of 19 areas were designated as "Nature Areas" based on their ecological merits (NBRC, 2006). However, these areas are not under legal protection, meaning they can be developed any time (Lim, 2000). To what extent does the state enforce policies and dedicate attention to protect our natural environment? According to Lee (2003), Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of the designated “Nature Areas” in Green Plan 1993, would be dammed to form a reservoir for social needs. Another example is the development of private housings beside Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (Wild Singapore, 2005). These anthropogenic impacts add stress and reduce the ecological buffer zones of our nature areas.

As Singaporeans become more affluent in the recent years, there is a greater sense of environmental consciousness and increasing need of higher quality of life (Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, 2001). Greater demands are placed on policy makers to incorporate conservation considerations into policy making decisions, and to emphasize the importance of protecting the little that is left of Singapore’s current natural heritage (Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, 2001). The positive correlation between increasing affluence and increasing realizations of nature conservation can be explained using the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”. Collective efforts of Singaporeans to save Chek Jawa from reclamation are good representations of our greater environmental consciousness (Lim, 2001).

Chek Jawa was deferred from reclamation at the eleventh hour

According to Ministry of National Development Press Release (2001), the government deferred reclamation at Chek Jawa at the eleventh hour in order to protect the rich marine biodiversity. After which, the government has been repeatedly citing the deferment (Tan, 2007) as proof of a "listening government" (Channel NewsAsia, 18th August 2002). As such, Chek Jawa is now considered the poster child of nature conservation in Singapore (The Straits Times, 9 August 2005b). Taking into account the economic loss incurred when the $1.4 billion reclamation plan (Tan, 2007) was deferred, it does suggest that the 'green' agenda has gained more prominence in Singapore. Dr Geh Min, President of Nature Society in Singapore, also noted that the government is now more open to public consultation (Tan, 2007). Is the deferment really Singapore's turning point in nature conservation (Tan, 2007)? Will the contestation of a nature landscape be resolved?

Tan (2007) suggested that there might be more to the story of how Chek Jawa was saved – It might just be a well-timed event where the politicians responded to the best of the situations at that time. This could be supported by the Minister for National Development Press Release (2002) that stated "the decision not to reclaim Pulau Ubin at the moment has been made only after we have weighed the trade-offs". Firstly, Sodhi et. al. (2008) noted that Chek Jawa was saved not because of a compromise between the state and conservationists but because of the people involved. With more than a thousand people visiting it on a single day before deferment, Chek Jawa earned a first time in Singapore on how a nature area can receive so much attention (Chua, 2002). According to Sodhi et. al. (2008), the state requires the consent of Singaporeans for political legitimacy and the right to rule. The voice from a larger body of people definitely has more impact than the petition from a handful of conservationists. However, Tan (2007) stated the deferment decision was more complex than mere public outcry. Other possible reasons proposed by Tan (2007) include the shortage of sand due to the ban by Indonesian sea-sand exporters, and also the reclamation dispute with Malaysia. Sodhi et. al. (2008) concluded that the reclamation at Chek Jawa was deferred not because of a compromise between the developmental state and conservationists, and that the government could not subscribe to the ecological rationality.

Figure 1. Many Singaporeans visiting Chek Jawa prior to deferment. Photos were taken on 19th October 2001. Credit to S. Marshall.

Nevertheless, conserving nature areas can give Singapore a greater edge in competition to attract foreign talent and also improve ecotourism. Of course, the ten year deferment itself demonstrates to a certain extent the rising prominence of 'green' agendas in Singapore. However, it appears that this could be the result of a strategic political move, rather than just for the protection of Chek Jawa's biodiversity. This is evident when the Biological Impact Assessment commissioned to study the impact of the reclamation only assessed impacts on dugongs (The Straits Times, 27th July 2001) instead of the biodiversity in general. In Tan (2007), a forum reply by URA stated that there are no reef communities and that the seagrass population is patchy, which holds little truth. National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan replied “no” when questioned if Chek Jawa marked a change in State ideology (Lim, 2002). This proves that the government’s ideology towards reclamation remains the same ideology of necessity (Tan, 2007).

Figure 2. Chek Jawa is now saved from reclamation till 2011 when the ten year deferment terminates. Photo was taken on 7th July 2007.

Labrador Park re-gazetted as Nature Reserve after its downgrade in 1973

Labrador Park was first gazetted as a nature reserve under the old Nature Reserves Ordinance in 16 February 1951 (Singapore, 1951). Under the Ordinance act, the lands were set aside and reserved for the purposes of the propagation, protection and preservation of the indigenous fauna and flora of the Colony and for the preservation of objects and places of aesthetic, historical or scientific interest (Singapore, 1951). The area also served the purpose for the study and research into matters relating to the fauna and flora of the Colony and the physical conditions in which they live (Singapore, 1951). However, Labrador Park was downgraded to a nature park in 1973. Reasons for de-gazetting of Labrador Park were not stated but there was speculation that it might be due to port development in Pasir Panjang (Chou et. al, 2006). Another possible reason was due to the decreasing population of the fern, bua cek (Dipteris conjugata) which was still plentiful in the 1960s (Lim et. al, 1994).

On 1 January 2002, ten hactares of coastal secondary vegetation and the rocky shore of Labrador Park was re-gazetted as a nature reserve (National Parks Board, 2008). The reasons for such a move, as reported by National Parks Board (2008), were because Labrador Park is the only rocky sea-cliff on mainland Singapore which can be used for recreation, education and research purposes. Also, Labrador Park holds a rich variety of flora and fauna. It can also be seen as an effort to create a city in a garden which enhances Singapore's attractiveness as a land of opportunities (PS21, 2005). If not for the persuasion from the public and advices from experts, Labrador Park would have been cleared for port developments, much less being re-gazetted as Nature Reserve. Together with his colleagues, Professor Leo Tan persuaded the authorities from clearing the beach for development. A possible reason that supported the success might be due to the location of a nearby disused power station and a former naval base beside the park that might have prevented port developments from encroaching onto the intertidal shores (The Straits Times, 9th August 2005a).

Figure 3. Labrador Park, the last remaining rocky shore on mainland Singapore, undisturbed by works during 2006. Photo was taken on 26th August 2006.

Compare and contrast Labrador Park with Chek Jawa after 2002

On July 2006, as part of the Pasir Panjang container terminal project, a cofferdam was built to minimize the impact on the intertidal area of Labrador Park (Wild Singapore, 2006). Being a nature reserve, the land should be protected from misuse and damages. However, a huge amount of rubbish was accumulated next to the cofferdam, including large piles of concrete pillars (Wildfilms, 2007). There seems no understanding why little immediate actions were done to rectify these issues. In recent years, restaurants, hotel and spa have been built at Labrador Park. Although it was stated in the Government Gazette that such constructions were allowed, no doubt they can affect the ecosystem through fragmentation.

Figure 4. Labrador Park intertidal zone being affected by thrash and concrete pillars. Photo was taken on 27th December 2007.

A team from Singapore Polytechnic conducted a funded project to build artificial coral reefs and improve marine life (The Straits Times, 26th November 2007b). However, more harm was caused instead when PVC pipes and concrete left by the team were found lying on the shore, believed to have affected marine life (The Straits Times, 26th November 2007). Dredging was also done very close to Labrador Park by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) to lay cable lines (The Straits Times, 29th October 2007a). Recently, a temporary holding area in the vicinity has been identified for rock-filling operations (Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, 2008). All these add to the stress on the marine environment. Despite being a nature reserve, Labrador Park suffers from various impacts. This reflects that the 'green' agenda is not as important as the 'brown' agenda.

Figure 5. Concrete slabs and PVC pipes belonging to the Singapore Polytechnic project were left lying on the Labrador Park intertidal zone. Photo was taken on 27th December 2007.

After the deferment from reclamation, the fate of Chek Jawa appears to change for the better. Chek Jawa gained more public attention and the government has put in more effort into protecting the shore from careless trampling through crowd management. Facilities were built for the public to explore Chek Jawa safely and conveniently (Wild Singapore, 2003). With Chek Jawa now being designated as a protected area, boats and people are not allowed to enter Chek Jawa and its surrounding waters (The New Paper, 2008).

Figure 6. The official launch of Chek Jawa by Mr. Mah Bow Tan. Photo was taken on 7th July 2007

Although Labrador Park is a nature reserve, of a higher status compared to Chek Jawa, it is suffering from much stress and lesser attention. On the other hand, Chek Jawa receives more public and government attention. Therefore, this case study suggests that it is not really about the entitlement given that matters. To a certain extent, it is the attention of citizens which will in turn give more attention and citation to these areas. All these however are not in line with the objectives of a 'green' agenda for the latter does not consider human interventions or plans. It only protects the area for what it is.

What is the future for Chek Jawa and Labrador Park?

It is stated that the government "has decided to put off the land reclamation works at Pulau Ubin for as long as the island is not required for development" (Ministry of National Development Press Release 2002). This suggests that nature areas are just land banks that will eventually give priority to developments whenever necessary. Also, the ten year period of deferment, instead of being permanently gazetted as a nature reserve, shows that development is possible at Chek Jawa once the deferment period is over in 2011. The Minister for National Development Press Release (2002) reinforces, “Land in Singapore is scarce. There will always be competing needs for land for development and national security needs".

Even if Chek Jawa is going to be left in its natural state, will Labrador Park be de-gazetted again just like in 1973? This is because Tan (2007) stated that "within the State ideology of conservation and necessity, the approach as acknowledged by NParks officers is to ensure one representation of each ecosystem, preferably a nature site could have multiple ecosystems as at Chek Jawa". It is therefore with uncertainty if this approach will undermine the reserve status of Labrador Park since Chek Jawa also has a coastal forest and rocky shore. Even if its nature reserve status remains unaffected, it is possible that lesser regard will be focused on Labrador Park as compared to Chek Jawa. In addition, the marine ecosystem of Labrador Park has been undergoing stress recently due to various works as discussed earlier, due to its proximity to the port.


Singapore has always been pragmatic toward environmental management. It is suggested that some actions taken to protect the nature heritage contradict the term 'green' agenda. An example is Labrador Park. Although it was re-gazetted as a nature reserve, due care for it was not as well practiced as in Chek Jawa, resulting in damages to the marine ecosystem. From our case study on the two nature habitats, it can be seen that the local citizens do have some power to influence the attention given to the nature areas. For Chek Jawa, partly due to the large number of people turning up to bid farewell, the state has decided to defer the reclamation plan and is willing to incur the losses. Chek Jawa is now made accessible to the public. However, the fate for Labrador Park is different. Lesser attention was given to it and that indirectly resulted in the damages and stress. If the 'green' agenda is more prominent recently, why did both sites not receive similar treatment?

On the other hand, global agendas have been adding pressure to the state to keep up with the norm. The ecotourism growth also motivated the state to work on its 'green' agenda. In addition, the state needs to maintain its “Garden in the city status” to avoid city-state homogenization, thus creating its unique identity. Furthermore, attracting foreign talents has been crucial for Singapore's economic prosperity (Peh, 2008). Therefore, there is a need to create an environment that the foreigners can feel comfortable with. These can be realized by protecting our natural heritage.

Can Singapore afford nature conservation given its limited land space and dense population? It is suggested that the public's need for nature might have been met with engineered greenery landscapes (Ooi, 2002). It is also true that achieving a balance between economic developments and maintaining nature heritage will remain a big challenge. If the state has the desire to focus more on its 'green' agenda, it could have given nature areas more legal protection. Merely setting them aside is not enough. To conclude, though 'green' agendas seemed to have gain prominence in recent years, 'brown' agenda will still out-shadow the former, given the developmental and pragmatic approach of the state.


Channel NewsAsia (2002), 'Government cannot run country just on feedback - PM Goh', Channel NewsAsia, 18 August Available from: Factiva [3 March 2008]

Chua E.K. (2002) Chek Jawa:Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity. Singapore: Simply Green

Lee, P.O. (2003), Nature Conservation versus Development: The Challenges Ahead, Institute of South East Asian Studies. Available from:
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Lim L. (2002), 'Govt open to feedback on conservation issues', The Straits Times, 15 January. Available from: Factiva [3 March 2008]

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Final-comment from lecturer:

Well done! I enjoyed reading your paper. Shows very good research effort. You have also used the research data/info effectively in substantiating your points.

Grade: A


ria said...

Wow! This is a great paper! I enjoyed reading it too.

Thanks for sharing it!

peizee said...

Nice. Glad u're becoming a teacher. "Moulding our future". You can share all these with your future students. Hen hao! haha.

Joseph Lai Tuck Kwong said...

I don't see it in your references, so I presume it had not been taken into account, or you could have deemed it irrelevent. For your reading - 'Civil Society and Political Change in Asia; Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space', Edited by Muthiah Alagappa. Under the chapter on Singapore, Suzaina Kadir offers insights gained from observing civil engagement in the case of saving Chek Jawa in her paper, 'Engagement and Anatomy Within the Political Status Quo'.

Hope this interest you.

koksheng said...

Thanks for the extra reading. I've not come across that paper before :-)

tan said...

Hihi! pardon my intrusion.. Im also a fellow Changing Landscapes student this sem .07/08 sem 2.. and i was googling green agenda and found your project! nicely done! now i see how the A came about! all the best for the exam tmr!

koksheng said...

woah.. Thks for your compliment. Glad to find a fellow coursemate :-) 10 hours more to the exam... All the very best!!

Ashok yadav said...

Its fantastic post. its help in future student. this is genuine post... thanks ..Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment, Phase 2 Environmental site assessment, Ground penetrating radar

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