(Delivered in Parliament on 7 February 2017)
Our Marine Park is Not A Mere Public Park
Madam Speaker, I recall reading with delight back in 2014 the initiative to establish our country’s first marine park at Sisters’ Islands. The objective to protect Singapore’s coral reefs, which are home to rare and endangered marine life, is lofty and praiseworthy. The plans for the marine park to serve as a platform for conservation, research, outreach and education on our marine biodiversity are ambitious and worthy of support.
We will be protecting what’s leftover of our natural heritage after the incessant urban development and redevelopment, not for ourselves, but for our children and for the world. In the face of the warming waters of climate change, protecting our tiny coral reefs is a statement of defiant sustainability. This is a shout out to everyone that we need to conserve our common future, no matter how small the contribution and how slim the chances.
There is also a promising social aspect leading to the establishment of the marine park. It was born from the proposal by civil society called the Singapore Blue Plan 2009. Various local NGOs and institutions worked with NParks during the International Year of the Reef in 2008 to develop the Plan, which was submitted to the government. As a result, the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey was launched, led by NParks and involved the universities, many NGOs and many more volunteers. In the five years, the Survey has discovered possibly 100 new species, which is in itself a major accomplishment and contribution to the global commons.
The government’s move to establish the marine park is a ringing endorsement of civil society’s initiative. It shows what non-governmental organizations and social clubs can achieve by pooling their creative energies, and what can be accomplished for the national good when the government listens and allows the creative energies to be channeled through to policy and law.
I have been looking forward to this Bill to formalize the legal status of the marine park and I am disappointed. I am disappointed with two things. Both disappointments are related to the objective of protecting our coral reefs. The first is the scope of protection and the second is the scale of protection.
Our Marine Park is a Nature Reserve
Let’s begin with scope of protection. The Bill defines “marine park” as “any area of the sea or seabed that is set aside for conservation of marine organisms and is designated in Part III of the Schedule”. So far so good, as the marine park seems to take on the characteristics of “national park” and “nature reserve”, being set aside for conservation, and designated with its own Part in the Schedule.
However, the “marine park” is then parked, forgive the pun, under the definition of “public park”. Now, there are two national parks, Fort Canning Park and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Singapore Botanic Gardens, and four nature reserves, the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Labrador Nature Reserve, and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. These areas are set aside for conservation of our natural heritage, scientific research, outreach and dissemination of knowledge, and educational purposes. These are exactly aligned with the purposes of the marine park, to serve as a platform for conservation, research, outreach and education on our marine biodiversity. So why is our only and very unique marine park not placed with our national parks and nature reserves, but lumped with over 300 public parks?
This is not just a question of bad categorization. The protections that are afforded to national parks and nature reserves should be given to our marine park, for the simple reason that our marine park was established to protect our unique and endangered marine biodiversity. Under Sections 8 and 9 of the Act, persons are restricted from collecting, capturing and displacing any plants and animals; from disturbing the land and dumping things; from carrying any explosive, net, trap or hunting device within any national park or nature reserve. These are exactly the protections that are needed for the marine park. Why is the government not properly defining the marine park as a national park or nature reserve, so that the marine park can do what it is suppose to do, to protect our unique marine life?
This is more urgent given that intertidal guided walks are being conducted and the diving trail and other planned trails will bring more visitors to experience the marine biodiversity up close. I understand that in any nature conservation effort, outreach and education are important to get public support. The intertidal walks, the trails, and the planned boardwalk and floating pontoon at Big Sister’s Island complement the conservation effort. However, they do expose the fragile marine eco-system to human footfalls and the natural temptation to touch and collect. Furthermore, as a public park, the marine park is exposed to visitors in private boats who could swim and snorkel freely among the reefs. Designating the marine park as a nature reserve, and not just any public park, will signal to visitors to give due respect to the marine biodiversity.
There is one more reason why the marine park needs the protection of a nature reserve, even more so than a terrestrial nature reserve. The boundaries of a terrestrial nature reserve such as Sungei Buloh could be carefully guarded against human intrusions using well-designed fences, walls, roads, hedges, waterways or secondary forests. However, the marine park is by nature a very open space given its location in the open seas. As our marine park gathers fame, our marine biodiversity could become a target of unscrupulous poachers and collectors. One major threat to coral reefs and reef fishes is poaching for the aquarium hobby market. We need to empower the custodian, NParks, to guard the marine park against this threat.
More than Coral Reefs
My second disappointment is with the scale of the protection. The marine park covers 40 hectares around Sisters’ Islands and the reefs off the western coasts of Pulau Tekukor and St John’s Island. The Blue Plan had a far more extensive list of areas with high marine biodiversity, which included many islands and reefs adjacent to the marine park, such as Pulau Hantu, Pulau Semakau, Pulau Biola, the Cyrene Reefs and Kusu Island. Expanding the marine park to cover these areas with submerged reefs would greatly enhance and deepen the protection of our marine biodiversity.
Kusu Island is also a cherished place for thousands of Singaporeans traveling there for religious pilgrimages. The legend behind the island about a tortoise turning itself into an island to save two shipwrecked sailors, a Malay and a Chinese, and the Chinese temple and kramat shrines located there represent our multiracial harmony. Kusu Island presents us with the opportunity to integrate an area of cultural significance into the marine park, to enhance it as a place of natural and cultural heritage.
There is also the need to create buffer zones in between the conserved areas. The marine park, as it is designated now, is not a contiguous zone of protection, but split into three parts off Sisters’ Islands, St John’s and Pulau Tekukor. Unrestricted shipping traffic poses a threat to the separated pockets of marine biodiversity. Just last year, in August, a collision between a Very Large Crude Carrier and a container ship close to the Sisters’ Islands brought on fears of an oil spill that would have been disastrous for the marine park. Buffer zones providing for secondary protection, not unlike the proposed amendment to create a new offence of releasing animals into a reserve through waterways outside the reserve, would mitigate the risks.
I am fully aware that the shipping traffic is the lifeline of our economy. However, the relocation of the port from Keppel and Pasir Panjang to Tuas presents us with an excellent opportunity. The URA has invited Singaporeans to imagine and envision how the planned redevelopment of the coastline for the Greater Southern Waterfront after 2030 can take shape. I believe we should not stop at the creation of a continuous waterfront from Labrador to Marina South and we should creatively and courageously imagine the inclusion of an expanded Southern Islands Marine Park as the Greater Southern Waterfront’s premium green space. Instead of limiting the green network to the corridor from Labrador Park and Mount Faber to Pulau Brani, we should think outside the terrestrial green box to a great national park that integrates Labrador Nature Reserve and its green corridor with the blue network of coral reefs of the Southern Islands.
Don’t Develop a Theme Park
I have a third point to add to the two disappointments concerning the scope and scale of protecting our marine biodiversity. This third point is the fear the amendments in this Bill will shape the evolution of the marine park in an undesirable direction.
Clause 4 of the Bill inserts a new section 6A to allow the Minister to designate any entity to manage a public park. Will this lead to the commercialization of our public parks? Will this lead to the parceling out of our 300-plus public parks to diverse organizations to turn them into spaces to carry out their agenda that may undermine or dilute the open character and recreational purpose of our public parks? Will this promote unhealthy competition and turf wars between entities such as Resident Committees, non-profit groups and even statutory boards? I hope the Senior Minister of State will clarify the intention of this amendment.
Now, with respect to the marine park being defined as a public park rather than a national park or natural reserve, this new section means that the management of the marine park could be assigned to another entity other than NParks. This is a dangerous proposition, as the marine park needs to be managed by an entity equipped with the right scientific and conservation expertise. NParks is the only entity that is properly equipped to manage the marine park.
Reading the two amendments together, defining the marine park as a public park, and allowing other entities to manage public parks, I fear that the marine park will be taken down the road to become an eco-tourist theme park. This will definitely subvert the aim of conserving our marine biodiversity. I hope the Senior Minister of State can state, categorically, that this is not the direction it will take the marine park towards.
The marine park represents to us our hope for the future, the legacies we leave behind for our children, an unrivalled lesson in good stewardship, and the values we cherish as a cosmopolitan island nation embracing the world. We should deepen the scope and expand the scale of protecting our marine biodiversity. We should not turn what should be a nature reserve into an eco-tourist theme park. Madam Speaker, I call for this Bill to be the first step to deepen the scope and expand the scale of protecting our marine biodiversity and not for turning the marine park into a theme park. With this hope, I support the Bill.