Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Chek Jawa. Discovering Singapore's Biodiversity" by Chua, E. K. (2002)

Simply Green. 116 pp. USD 20. ISBN 981 046814 8. Tien Wah Press (Pte) Ltd.

Pulau Ubin is a small island of about 10km by 2km off the northeast coast of Singapore's main island. It is a special place for Singaporeans and visitors alike, having escaped the bustling growth of the city-state, and provides an impression of a way of life, long lost on mainland Singapore. However, in 2001, the island awaited an impending fate of reclamation of its eastern and southern coastlines. Villagers living in the area had been gradually shifted out and few remains of the buildings they occupied could even be seen. The now ghostly coastline however, provided complete access to curious nature enthusiasts who had previously stayed away from the private property of the villagers.

They stumbled onto a goldmine. This small coastal area boasted of several ecosystems in one site -coastal forest, mangrove, rocky shore, sandy shore, seagrass lagoon, mud flats and coral rubble. To a population more familiar with sterile beaches, it was an explosion of marine life -tunicates, sponges, sea cucumbers, sea stars, a variety of molluscs, seagrass, the list seemingly just went on. The visual splendour of the site, its uniqueness and impending extinction inspired an explosion of activity on its behalf by nature lovers, educators, researchers, the media, public and the government. In a landmark decision, the reclamation of scheduled for Pulau Ubin was deferred, and Chek Jawa was saved for the interim at least.

Dr. Chua Be Kiam was amongst those inspired by the variety, space, stories and secrets of the area. Like many naturalists in Singapore, he was familiar with the pockets of terrestrial biodiversity on the mainland. He had in fact popularised such areas by authoring two photo-history titles, entitled "Nature in Singapore -Ours to Protect" (1993) and "Pulau Ubin - Ours to Treasure" (2001) (see http:// A dentist by profession, he is a passionate nature photographer and nature conservationist, and communicates this through his images in books and by guiding and giving talks. This passion is obvious through the photographs and emotive writing of the book.

The contents are arranged somewhat into chapters. "Discovering Chek Jawa" is a brief account of the events leading to the eventual deferment of reclamation. Little of the complex series of events has been shared with the public and this is a good introduction to an important event in Singapore's history. "Heaven on Earth" provides an overview of the habitats and brief contributions about most of the ecosystems, and marine life is explored through the main plant and animal groups in " Fascinating gems of Chek Jawa". The author's suggestions about education and tourism are raised in "What next?" and "Voices from within" is a sheet of quotations by various people. The various affiliations and more so the lack of affiliation of the various people who are quoted reflect the diverse interest that Chek Jawa summoned to her eventual relief. "The plight and fragility" and "The last horizon" are reflective pieces on issues facing the urbanised Singaporean, and the significance of Chek Jawa.

This book does not pretend to be an authoritative marine guide but is instead, a reflection of the author's exploration of coastal ecosystems through the gift of Chek Jawa. However, even scientists will find the photos surprising and interesting. In a very short time, he has provided a glimpse into a significant event and place. Yet again he provides a refreshing story celebrating discovery and protection of a natural habitat in Singapore.

Proceeds of this book will be donated to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research for ongoing research at Chek Jawa. The sale of the book at the museum is also helping to fund its workshop series to train new volunteer guides for Chek Jawa, at which the author volunteers as a principal field instructor.

N. Sivasothi
Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research
Department of Biological Sciences
National University of Singapore
Kent Ridge, 117600, Republic of Singapore

First published in The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Vol. 50(2): 514-515 on 31 Dec 2002.

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