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Marine conservation in Singapore: a look at general legislation protecting the Sisters’ Island Marine Park

Marine conservation in Singapore: a look at general legislation protecting the Sisters’ Island Marine Park

Amshar Addy,

LLB Year 2, Environmental Law Students Association

National University of Singapore


In 2014, Sisters’ Island was announced as Singapore’s first marine park in a move welcomed by marine conservationists and nature lovers islandwide. Subsequently, in February 2017, amendments were made to the Park and Trees Act that enshrined the legal status of the Sisters’ Island Marine Park (SIMP) and allowed for greater protection for the marine park under the law.

This article aims to examine the legal implications of the amendment and its significance to marine conservation in Singapore. Reference will be made to international practices on marine conservation and specific case studies where possible.

While the legislative amendments are indeed welcomed as an initial first step, it is submitted that more can still be done in terms of legislation to protect our maritime areas for future generations.

Singapore’s approach to marine conservation

Prior to the amendment of the Parks and Trees Act (Cap 216) of 2017, the approach in Singapore to protect specific areas of our environment was to designate these areas as either Nature Reserves , National Parks  or Public Parks . The UNESCO World Heritage site, Botanic Gardens for example, is designated as a National Park under Part I of the Schedule while the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is designated as a Nature Reserve under part II of the Schedule.

Amendment to include marine parks

With the amendment of the Parks and Trees Act of 2017, the category of “marine parks” was added into the definition of a public park .  This means that offences in the marine park would attract the same penalties as per public parks, which is on the lower end as compared to National Parks and Nature Reserves .

Accordingly, the SIMP would also have the same level of protection as our terrestrial public parks under the Parks and Trees Regulations. Restrictions as to activities that would harm the biodiversity in the area would therefore equally apply to public parks and the marine park .

Southern Islands

Map of the Southern Islands, incorporating SIMP (the cyan-shaded areas)

Legal implications of the amendment

It remains to be seen whether the general provisions already established for terrestrial parks in the Parks and Trees Regulations are sufficient to protect the biodiversity in our marine parks.

In the Parliamentary Debates in February 2017, it can be seen that there are still residual concerns despite the ‘public park’ classification, with regard to the scope and scale of protection to be accorded to the marine park.  Specialised legislation will still be needed to accord the park with the proper protection specific to a marine park .

Is the classification of the SIMP as a ‘public park’ appropriate?

Additionally, arguments have been made for elevating the SIMP to the status of a national park as per the arguments of Mr Christopher De Souza  and Assoc Prof Daniel Goh  in Parliament. S 7(3)(a) of the Parks and Trees Act allows for the designation of a national park or nature reserve for the purpose of protection and conservation of biodiversity in that area, which is in line with the stated goals of the marine park. Designating the SIMP as a national park will give it greater recognition as Singapore’s 3rd National Park.

Legislatively however, it is submitted that the level of protection would not be greatly heightened. The restrictions on activities that would cause harm to biodiversity in both public parks and national parks are already largely similar. For example, the wording in s8 and 9 of the Parks and Trees Act, are replicated word for word in s8 (2) and s 5 of the Parks and Trees Regulations, with the difference instead being the penalties for the different areas as already mentioned.

It is likely therefore that the benefits of a re-classification of the SIMP are extra-legal instead, such as better management of the area, better enforcement measures and greater attention paid to the area, which means that the need for marine specific legislation may remain unaddressed through a reclassification.

Approach in other jurisdictions

To that end, a look at the marine conservation practices and legislation in other jurisdictions can indicate a possible solution to the problem. The practice of designating certain areas to be protected by law for the sake of conserving the biodiversity in that area, is one that is done globally and is a practice recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

These Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are a conservation tool which the international community has resolutely declared its commitment to, through international declarations such as the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  and the UN Ocean Conference of 2017 . Singapore’s first ever marine park represents a step forward in this direction. According to the IUCN definition of a protected area as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”, it is likely that the SIMP will qualify as a protected area under the IUCN definition and can be managed with the aid of the IUCN guidelines.

A framework for developing marine specific legislation

For developing marine specific legislation that is appropriate to the SIMP, the legislation has to be closely connected to the conservation goals intended, for the legislation to be effective. The IUCN has developed guidelines for managing protected areas according to the different categories of objectives to be achieved as shown in table one.

DefinitionPrimary Objective
IaCategory Ia are strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/ geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring.

To conserve regionally, nationally or globally outstanding ecosystems, species (occurrences or aggregations) and/ or geodiversity features: these attributes will have been formed mostly or entirely by non-human forces and will be degraded or destroyed when subjected to all but very light human impact.


Category Ib protected areas are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition. 

To protect the long-term ecological integrity of natural areas that are undisturbed by significant human activity, free of modern infrastructure and where natural forces and processes predominate, so that current and future generations have the opportunity to experience such areas.

Category II protected areas are large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.

To protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, and to promote education and recreation


Category III protected areas are set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, submarine caverns, geological feature such as a caves or even a living feature such as an ancient grove. They are generally quite small protected areas and often have high visitor value.

To protect specific outstanding natural features and their associated biodiversity and habitats

Category IV protected areas aim to protect particular species or habitats and management reflects this priority. Many category IV protected areas will need regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.

To maintain, conserve and restore species and habitats.

Category V protected areas are where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.

To protect and sustain important landscapes/ seascapes and the associated nature conservation and other values created by interactions with humans through traditional management practices.
VICategory VI protected areas conserve ecosystems and habitats together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. They are generally large, with most of the area in natural condition, where a proportion is under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims of the area.To protect natural ecosystems and use natural resources sustainably, when conservation and sustainable use can be mutually beneficial.

Table 1: Definition and Primary Objectives of IUCN Protected Area Categories

Currently, the intended plan for the SIMP seems to be leaning towards category II  of the IUCN guidelines which allows for human interaction within the protected area for educational or recreational opportunities .

However, given that some areas are sensitive areas for corals and intended to be a coral nursery, perhaps certain zones need to be delineated and a greater range of activities prohibited, preventing human interaction, reflecting objectives closer to category IV or category 1a. In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 , zones are clearly set out in Part V of the Act where certain activities such as drilling, mining and fishing are restricted, thus ensuring better protection of these areas. Because of its size, the Great Barrier Reef is a MPA that can be delineated into various IUCN conservation categories, to better manage the MPA, and this is reflected in the corresponding legislation.

Regionally, the Hong Kong Marine Parks and Marine Reserves Regulations (Cap 476A) also reflects the practice of zoning for an MPA. In s 3(1A) and s5(2) of the Hong Kong Marine Parks and Marine Reserves Regulations, activities such as fishing and water skiing are limited to special zones as specified in the schedule 1 of the Regulations despite the Hong Kong Marine Park areas not being as large as the Great Barrier Reef.

Thus, despite the size of the marine park, the common practice of zoning to limit the negative impact of human activities on the MPA indicate its effectiveness as a legislative tool and the need for similar legislation to be enacted in Singapore to protect its own marine park. Activities such as fishing and diving can be restricted to specified areas of the marine park in accordance with the management goals intended to be achieved, whether conservation or education.


In conclusion, it is not enough to designate the SIMP as a ‘public park’ under the law and to treat it the same as our other public parks. Through a study of global norms, international guidelines and legislation from around the region, it is submitted that what is needed to maintain the effectiveness of the SIMP as a marine conservation success story, is legislation that is appropriate to the area. This can only be done if the SIMP is developed in accordance with IUCN guideline objectives to be achieved and with the appropriate legislative measures in place.


  • 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNGOR,70th Session, UNDOC A/RES/70/1
  • Great Barrier Reef Act 1975
  • https://www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/parks-and-nature-reserves/sisters-islands-marine-park
  • Nigel Dudley, ed, Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories (Switzerland: IUCN, 2008
  • Parliamentary Debates Singapore: Official Report, vol 94 (11 September 2017) (Mr Christopher De Souza)
  • Parliamentary Debates Singapore: Official Report, vol 94 (7 February 2017) (Mr Desmond Lee, Mr Louis Ng, Assoc Prof Daniel Goh)