Chek Jawa is an intertidal flat located at the remote easternmost tip of Pulau Ubin, one of Singapore’s offshore islands. Although only about a square kilometre in size, Chek Jawa comprises six distinct ecological habitats, each supporting a unique ecosystem of wildlife. In 2002, reclamation of the area was slated to start, but was deferred following a strong campaign mounted by nature lovers and conservationists.
Ecology and biodiversity
Located on the easternmost tip of Pulau Ubin, Chek Jawa is an intertidal flat of about 1-square-kilometre.1 It is a coastal area that is covered by water at high tide, but exposed when the water recedes, revealing the various wildlife species living in the sand and mud.2 Within the area are six unique ecological habitats: coastal forest, mangrove, sandy beach, sandflats (lagoon), coral rubble and a tiny island known as Pulau Sekudu or Frog Island.3
Some of the flora and fauna that can be found at Chek Jawa include stick insects, flying dragons, oriental pied hornbills, jungle fowls, wild boars, otters, seashore nutmeg trees, sea anemones, seahorses, nudibranchs, sea cucumbers, cow fish, octopuses, stingrays, starfishes, decorator crabs, shellfishes, seagrasses, seaweed and sponges.4 According to marine biologist Tan Koh Siang of the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute, Chek Jawa represents one of the few remaining estuarine ecosystems left in Singapore. An organism unique to these ecosystems is the large starfish of the genus Protoreaster.5 Much of Chek Jawa’s rich biodiversity, such as the abundant seagrass, can be observed during low tide.6
In 1992, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) approved a plan to reclaim the eastern tip of Chek Jawa. This plan was mentioned in both the 1997 development guide plan and the Master Plan 1998.7 The reclamation was meant to create “reserve land” that would eventually be used for military training.8
In early 2001, the National Parks Board (NParks) approached the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) to conduct a salvage collection at Chek Jawa before reclamation began. A salvage collection is a documentation exercise to record and preserve everything in the threatened ecosystem.9 Over six days in May, July and August 2001, the RMBR made field trips to Chek Jawa to survey the biodiversity, photograph the area and collect sample specimens.10
On 11 May 2001, the URA held a public forum chaired by then Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan to discuss land use in Singapore and the Concept Plan 2001.11 At the forum, Lai spoke up about Chek Jawa, drawing public attention to the issue for the first time.12 The Chek Jawa issue was subsequently reported in the media, prompting a flurry of letters to the press from both members of the public and nature groups which described the appeal of Chek Jawa and advocated for its preservation.13 They argued that Chek Jawa would make a great outdoor classroom due to its unique ecological makeup.14 They also cautioned that land reclamation would extinguish all life in the area, including the rare flora and fauna unique to Chek Jawa.15
Shortly after, on 27 July 2001, the URA replied, via a letter published in The Straits Times forum page, that reclamation of Chek Jawa would proceed as planned.16 The URA explained that the land to be reclaimed would be used for military training, which is part of a long-term plan to ensure that Singapore has sufficient land for military training purposes. The URA also cited a study commissioned by the Housing and Development Board which posited that the reclamation would not have any significant impact on the dugong (an endangered mammal that mainly subsists on seagrass) population, because the seagrass in Chek Jawa was found to be patchy and there did not appear to be a resident dugong population.17 The URA further explained that the area around Chek Jawa did not have established coral reefs nor reef communities, and gave the assurance that NParks would transplant the affected plants to other parts of the island.18
The public campaign to save Chek Jawa gained prominence in the second half of 2001, as nature lovers, teachers and Pulau Ubin residents wrote many letters to the press and the relevant ministries, urging the government to review the reclamation plans.19 In the meantime, the URA received field data and detailed reports on Chek Jawa’s biodiversity.20
The RMBR and the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) organised public tours of Chek Jawa during this period. The response was overwhelming, with over 1,000 people turning up for the walks on 20 October 2001.21 Other aspects of the campaign to save Chek Jawa included public petitions, distribution of leaflets, talks, photo exhibitions and the publication of articles in the NSS magazine Nature Watch and Asian Geographic: The Journal of our Environment.22
Deferment of reclamation
On 20 December 2001, a few days before the reclamation was scheduled to begin, Mah met representatives of nature groups and interested members of the public to discuss ways to protect Chek Jawa’s wildlife.23 On the same day, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced that the reclamation of Chek Jawa would be deferred for the time being so that the ministry could consult with relevant experts on how best to protect Chek Jawa's marine life such that it would not be affected by the reclamation.24
Subsequently, a press release issued by the MND on 14 January 2002 announced that reclamation works on Pulau Ubin would be deferred for as long as the island is not required for development. The ministry also added that it was not cost-effective to reclaim a small area of Pulau Ubin, following recommendations by the National Institute of Education, RMBR and NSS that reclamation, if any, be limited to only a very small area so as not to harm Chek Jawa’s fragile ecosystem.25
In the same statement, NParks also announced that a committee – comprising representatives from the NSS, RMBR and other experts – would be formed to establish a plan for the maintenance of Chek Jawa’s ecosystem.26
After news broke of Chek Jawa’s impending reclamation, large numbers of visitors descended on the area, hoping to see Chek Jawa before it was reclaimed, despite the MND’s advice against visiting the place.27 The large crowds caused undue stress on the ecosystem, prompting NParks to implement various measures to reduce visitor numbers.28 These include a booking system for visiting; designated routes; the mandatory company of guides; donning proper footwear such as rubber boots; and rules against littering, touching or collecting specimens.29
Suspension of tours and reopening
In late March 2007, NParks suspended guided tours to Chek Jawa in order to give the wetlands time to recover after being badly affected by heavy rains. The rains had altered the salinity of the water surrounding Chek Jawa, resulting in the death of much marine life.30
In July that year, Chek Jawa was reopened to the public and tours resumed. The reopening was accompanied by the launch of new facilities – a 1.1-kilometre boardwalk, a 20-metre-tall viewing tower, and a visitor centre with a viewing jetty – to facilitate and enhance visitors’ learning and appreciation of Chek Jawa’s biodiversity.31 CPG Consultants were the architects behind the S$6.2-million redevelopment.32 In 2007, the repurposed Tudor-style visitor centre was named one of six winners of the URA’s Architectural Heritage Awards.33
Since the reopening, visitors can either conduct their own tour of Chek Jawa, or join a guided tour. Paid guided tours are only available during low tide, and need to be booked in advance with NParks.34
A recent threat to Chek Jawa occurred on 26 May 2010 when two large vessels collided off the Changi coast, discharging 2,500 tonnes of crude oil into the sea and creating an oil slick that spread to Chek Jawa.35 Volunteers were recruited to clean the affected shoreline and the oil slick.36
Although the reclamation of Pulau Ubin has been deferred since 2002, the release of the January 2013 white paper on population elicited concerns from environmental groups. There were fears that the accompanying land-use plan and the proposed reclamation of Singapore’s coastal and marine areas might affect Chek Jawa.37 Under the plan, Chek Jawa and parts of Pulau Ubin are still marked as reserve sites for reclamation.38 Unlike Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Chek Jawa does not have any legal protection, and remains vulnerable to development.39
Vina Jie-Min Prasad & Jaime Koh
1. Lydia Lim, “Pulling Together to Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa,” Straits Times, 29 December 2001, 18 (From NewspaperSG); Ria Tan and Alan Yeo, eds., Chek Jawa Guidebook (Singapore: Simply Green, 2003), 9. (Call no. RSING 333.91716 CHE)
2. Tan and Yeo, Chek Jawa Guidebook, 9.
3. Joseph Lai, “Chek Jawa’s Wet Wonderland,” Wetlands 8, no. 3 (December 2001); Tan and Yeo, Chek Jawa Guidebook, 5–6.
4. Lai, “Chek Jawa’s Wet Wonderland”; Tan and Yeo, Chek Jawa Guidebook.
5. Lim, “Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa.”
6. Lai, “Chek Jawa’s Wet Wonderland”; Tan and Yeo, Chek Jawa Guidebook, 9–10; Lim, “Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa.”
7. Ang Hwee Suan, “Chek Jawa Reclamation Decided after Careful Study,” Straits Times, 27 July 2001, 25; Ang Hwee Suan, “Ubin Land Reclamation Work Behind Moves,” Straits Times, 14 February 2001, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Lydia Lim, “Ubin’s Nature Beach Gets a Reprieve,” Straits Times, 21 December 2001, 5; Ang, “Chek Jawa Reclamation Decided.”
9. N. Sivasothi, “Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin: From Research to Education, Alumnus, April 2002.
10. Lim, Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa.”
11. Lim, Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa”; May Goh, “Presenting the Concept Plan 2001,”Skyline (July–Aug 2001), 2–3. (From BookSG)
12. “Mr Joseph Lai,” Straits Times, 19 August 2006, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
13. G. Chandradas, “Chek Out This Hidden Eden,” Straits Times, 8 July 2001, 9; Geh Min, “Chek Jawa’s Natural Beach Should Be Preserved,” Straits Times, 16 July 2001, 14; Vilma D’ Rozario, “Chek Jawa an Ideal Outdoor Classroom,” Straits Times, 28 December 2001, 18; Leong Kwok Peng, “Chek Jawa Unique Ecosystem,” Straits Times, 24 December 2001, 14; Chiang Ming Yu, “Tread Gently,” Today, 24 December 2001, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Chandradas, “Chek Out This Hidden Eden.”
15. Chua Ee Kiam, Chek Jawa: Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity (Singapore: Simply Green, 2002), 79. (Call no. RSING 333.91716 CHU)
16. Ang, “Chek Jawa Reclamation Decided.”
17. Ang, “Chek Jawa Reclamation Decided”; Min, “Natural Beach Should Be Preserved.”
18. Ang, “Chek Jawa Reclamation Decided.”
19. Lim, “Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa.”
20. Lim, “Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa”; Chua Lee Hoong, “Anatomy of a U-Turn,” Straits Times, 2 January 2002, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Lim, “Turn the Tide for Chek Jawa”; Chua, Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity, 20.
22. “Paradise Found – and Lost,” Straits Times, 27 October 2001, L21; Tan Choon Ming, “Sad Sale of Chek Jawa,” Today, 17 August 2001, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Chua, Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity, 20.
23. Lim, “Ubin’s Nature Beach Gets a Reprieve.”
24. Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, “Deferment of Reclamation Works at Tanjung Chek Jawa,” press release, 20 December 2001 (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 2001122003); Ministry of National Development, “Deferment of Reclamation Works at Pulau Ubin,” press release, 14 January 2002.
25. Ministry of National Development, “Deferment of Reclamation Works at Pulau Ubin.”
26. Ministry of National Development, “Deferment of Reclamation Works at Pulau Ubin.”
27. Lydia Lim, “Loving Chek Jawa to Death,” Straits Times, 29 December 2001, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Lim, “Ubin’s Nature Beach Gets a Reprieve.”
28. Chua, Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity, 23, 80; Sivasothi, “Research to Education.”
29. Lau Fook Keong, “New Rules for Visiting Chek Jawa,” Straits Times, 27 December 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Boon Chan, “No More Chek Jawa Tours – for Now,” Straits Times, 25 March 2007, 64. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Tay Suan Chiang, “Chek Jawa’s Back,” Straits Times, 8 July 2007, 51; Alex Hooi, “Boardwalk to Get You Close to Nature in Ubin,” Straits Times, 30 April 2005, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Natasha Ann Zachariah, “Flying the Local Flag,” Straits Times, 2 November 2013, 14–15; “Chek Jawa Visitor Centre,” Straits Times, 6 October 2007, 109. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Zul Othman, “Architectural Honours,” Today, 2 October 2007, 2 (From NewspaperSG); “URA Unveils Six Winners for the 2007 Architectural Heritage Awards,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1 October 2007.
34. “Pulau Ubin,” National Parks Board, n.d.
35. H. Liew and G. Amresh, “Slick Stains 7.2km of Beach,” Straits Times, 27 May 2010 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Grace Chua, “Oil Spill Hits Chek Jawa, Changi Beach,” Straits Times, 29 May 2010, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Jamie Ee Wen Wei, “Volunteers Help Clean Up Shoreline,” Straits Times, 30 May 2010, 8; Daryl Chin, “No More Oil Stains at Beaches along Changi and East Coast,” Straits Times, 31 May 2010, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Tan Weizhen, “Nature Group Concerned about Impact of MRT Line,” Today, 4 February 2013, 4; Woo Sian Boon, “Nature Forgotten in All the Number Crunching,” Today, 7 February 2013, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Our Land Use Plan,” Ministry of National Development, 9 February 2013. 39. Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Sua, “Pulau Ubin and the Unsettled S'pore Psyche,” Today, 18 April 2013, 14, (From NewspaperSG)
“Chek Jawa Homepage,” Habitatnews, n.d.
“Chek Jawa,” Wild Singapore, n.d.
The information in this article is valid as of 16 October 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.