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Garden in the City (Part II): What are we doing to preserve what is left of biodiversity and greenery in Singapore?

Garden in the City (Part II): What are we doing to preserve what is left of biodiversity and greenery in Singapore?

Garden in the City (Part II): What are we doing to preserve what is left of biodiversity and greenery in Singapore?

By Wong Li-Anne, Kim (NUS LLB Y1)
     Lu En Hui, Sarah (NUS LLB Y1)


  • Definitions

In Section 7 of the Parks and Trees Act, it is interesting to note that the statute makes no distinction between the definition of a ‘national park’ and a ‘nature reserve’. Instead, they are conflated into a single composite definition, based on their functions. This is observed in Section 7(3):

“(3)  National parks and nature reserves are set aside for all or any of the following purposes:

  1. the propagation, protection and conservation of the trees, plants, animals and other organisms of Singapore, whether indigenous or otherwise;
  2. the study, research and preservation of objects and places of aesthetic, historical or scientific interest;
  3. the study, research and dissemination of knowledge in botany, horticulture, biotechnology, or natural and local history; and

(d) recreational and educational use by the public.”

The Government has shed light on nature reserves being ‘areas where natural flora and fauna remain relatively undisturbed by human activity, and which provide food, shelter and breeding sites for diverse biological species’ . Three main principles influence the selection of these areas: ‘They must be rich in biodiversity; they must be mature, not transient, sites, and they must be sustainable’ .

Another type of green space provided for in the PTA is known as ‘public parks’. Section 2 defines ‘public parks’ as ‘any State land, any land belonging to the Board or any other land, which is (a) utilized as a public park, marine park, recreation ground, playground, garden, public open space, walk, park connector or green verge; and (b) managed or maintained by the Board or by any management body designated under Section 6A’. The management bodies designated under Section 6A refer to ‘any body to be a management body for any State land, land belonging to the Board or any other land that is managed as a public park on behalf of the Government or the Board, as the case may be’.

Green spaces hence fall within a hierarchy of legislative protection, with nature reserves and national parks receiving greater protection (through application of more rigid prohibition clauses on activities carried out in such areas) and public parks receiving less protection under the Parks and Trees Act.

  • What factors contribute to the classification of green spaces?

The definitions of Nature Reserves, National Parks and Public Parks articulated in the PTA are premised primarily on the functions of these green spaces. However, these definitions may prove nebulous as it is still unclear what factors are considered when classifying a green space into the status of ‘national park’ or ‘nature reserve’. The Act still ‘remains silent on the criteria considered in the selection, addition, variation or revocation of areas as national parks and nature reserves’ .

This ambiguity has elicited many questions on whether or not certain green spaces, currently still holding the position of ‘public parks’, should be upgraded to the position of ‘nature reserve’ or ‘national park’, given the similarities in functions as described in Section 7 of the PTA. This article suggests that the following factors be taken into account when deciding to categorise green spaces as ‘nature reserves’ or ‘national parks’, with respect to case studies on Sisters’ Islands Marine Park (“SIMP”) and Pulau Ubin.  SIMP spans about 40 ha around Sisters’ Islands and along the western reefs of St John’s Island and Pulau Tekukor, home to a vibrant array of coral reefs, sandy shores and seagrass areas . Pulau Ubin is an island situated just off the north-eastern corner of mainland Singapore. It is a sanctuary for a great variety of wildlife, including the Chek Jawa Wetlands, one of the world’s richest ecosystems.

  1. Level of biodiversity present in green space that necessitates legislative protection

The first case study centers on whether Singapore’s first marine park at Sister’s Island should be promoted to such a status. As contended by Nominated Member of Parliament, Assoc Prof Daniel Goh during the Parliamentary Debates over the passing of the Parks and Trees (Amendment) Bill in 2017, the marine park holds the status of ‘public park’. This is despite how the Bill describes the park to take on the characteristics of a nature reserve; it is defined 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 ’. The purpose of this marine park align well with that of nature reserves and national parks – for conservation, research, outreach and education on marine biodiversity. Why then, has it been placed on the same footing as more than 300 other public parks? Given that the marine park was established to protect Singapore’s unique and endangered marine biodiversity, it is crucial that protections afforded to nature reserves such as those under sections 8 and 9 of the PTA, wherein persons are restricted from collecting, capturing and displacing any plants and animals, are applied to this marine park as well.

The second case study considers whether Pulau Ubin island should be upgraded to the status of “nature reserve”. Currently, Pulau Ubin is classified as a ‘Nature Area’, which is defined by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as an area with “significant biodiversity that will be retained for as long as development is not needed”.  This public park is protected under the Parks and Trees Act, and its subsidiary legislation, the Parks and Trees Regulations. This article contends that while it may receive some statutory protection, such protection is limited and inadequate. The ecological and biodiversity significance of Ubin should warrant it to hold a higher status as a ‘nature reserve’ as this site deserves greater protection. Ubin is home to a variety of wildlife habitats such as the largest remaining portion of Singapore’s mangrove, covering 149ha, and 800 ha of secondary forest, scrubland, freshwater ponds, tidal mudflats orchards and plantations, rocky shoreline, and marine habitats like seagrass beds, lowtide exposed sandbar and coral rubble area.   Such a diversity of habitats has provided a home for a great diversity and quantity of wildlife including 712 native plant species and 30 native mammal species. This is an important conservation site for many species of wildlife, with certain species such as the Brown Wood Owl and White-bellied Blind Snake being unique to Ubin alone.  The uniqueness and pure quantity of biodiversity present in Ubin makes Ubin a valuable site for the protection and conservation of the vast array of wildlife and a prime area of study and research in the area of botany, horticulture, biotechnology and natural history which can also be used by the public for educational purposes.  The above reasons why Ubin is a valuable site are synonymous with the definition of nature reserves laid out above. Hence, given Ubin’s unique and abundant biodiversity, this island should be accorded a higher level of legislative protection to preserve the biodiversity gem found here.

  1. Empowering custodians to guide parks against threats unique to certain types of green spaces

SIMP differs from the conventional nature reserve, in that it is marine instead of terrestrial. Thus, its vulnerability to open seas is far greater than that of terrestrial nature reserves such as Sungei Buloh, which can be easily protected against the intrusion of visitors by constructing physical fences, walls or secondary forests. A threat unique to the marine park would thus be poachers and collectors; NParks needs to be empowered through such legislative measures to guard the marine park against such dangers.

Just like how SIMP differs from the convention nature reserve, Ubin is distinguishable as well, because of its geographical location. Unlike typical nature reserves that are located on mainland Singapore, Ubin is a separate island of its own, on the north-east sector of the Johore Straits. This unique location has allowed Ubin to play the essential role of dispersing wildlife from the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. The position of Ubin situated about 1-3 kilometres from both the Johore shoreline and from Coney Island and Changi point in Singapore  has allowed Ubin to be a platform for wildlife to move from Malaysia to Singapore, bringing a greater variety of wildlife into Singapore. This unique role of Ubin, which cannot be found in any other nature reserve or area in Singapore, cements its position as an irreplaceable site for biodiversity conservation, as it not only provides a shelter for a diverse range of wildlife, but also functions as a conduit for wildlife to travel from the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. Such a unique quality of Palau Ubin makes it a worthy contender of the status of a ‘nature reserve’ as it deserves legislative protection for its indispensable role in safeguarding biodiversity.

  1. The need to signal to visitors to give due respect to the biodiversity present in the park

Where specific green areas may be especially vulnerable to treading, it is important that visitors are made aware of the area’s status as a highly-protected nature reserve or national park. In the case of SIMP, guided walks at the intertidal zone and trails marked out at diving zones, such as Big Sister Island’s floating pontoon, inevitably attracts visitors to the area. Similarly, the greater publicity surrounding Ubin has resulted in the number of visitors to Ubin rapidly increasing, be it because of the growing popularity of Chek Jawa, increase in campers, participants in recreational activities such as mountain biking or nature walks found in Ubin, may not bode well for the biodiversity on the island. In both Sisters’ Island and Ubin, exposure of the precarious eco-systems to human footfalls and temptation to touch and collect is dangerous and may not bode well for biodiversity. While outreach and education can highlight the importance of conserving such environments in pristine condition to the public, this may not be enough in legitimising the need for conservation by legally enforcing it. Thus, designating such natural sites as nature reserves as opposed to a mere public park or nature area will influence the psyche of visitors. Visitors will hopefully be induced to give due respect to the biodiversity present.


As Singapore moves towards a more conservation-centric society that is more focused on the welfare of biodiversity and our greenery, one possible step to take could be increasing the number of areas classified as ‘nature reserves’, so that more areas receive legislative protection to preserve the natural landscapes and biodiversity found there. The level of biodiversity, uniqueness of certain green spaces and a necessity to monitor the behaviour of public in certain green spaces are possible factors to consider in determining if a green space should receive greater protection.


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“Sisters’ Islands Marine Park.” National Parks Board. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.nparks.gov.sg/sistersislandsmarinepark.

“$name.” National Parks Board (NParks). Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.nparks.gov.sg/pulau-ubin/biodiversity/fauna-and-flora-of-ubin.

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