Ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Chou Loke Ming tells Hong Xinyi about Sin­ga­pore’s re­silient co­ral reefs and how to pro­tect this ma­rine legacy

Singapore Tatler - - CONTENTS -

Ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Chou Loke Ming on pro­tect­ing Sin­ga­pore’s co­ral reefs

Chou loke ming took up snorkelling in the 1970s when he was study­ing zo­ol­ogy at the then Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore. Back then, co­ral reefs could still be found along the orig­i­nal coast­line of main­land Sin­ga­pore, and more reefs fringed the off­shore is­lands. “The wa­ter was clear, and the reefs were re­ally as­tound­ing,” the ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist rem­i­nisces. “I was fas­ci­nated by the many in­ter­est­ing and colour­ful species.” Spurred by this fas­ci­na­tion, he started what is now known as the Reef Ecol­ogy Lab at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore (NUS), and spent his aca­demic ca­reer re­search­ing co­ral reef ecol­ogy and ad­vo­cat­ing for the protection of South­east Asia’s ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity. Now an ad­junct re­search pro­fes­sor at the Trop­i­cal Ma­rine Science In­sti­tute at NUS, Loke Ming is the sub­ject of a new chil­dren’s book un­der the Asian Sci­en­tist Ju­nior se­ries that spot­lights out­stand­ing sci­en­tists from Asia. Per­se­ver­ance is a key theme of Loke Ming’s story. By the 1980s, sed­i­men­ta­tion—the ero­sion of soil par­ti­cles used in land recla­ma­tion—had started to cloud the clear waters of his youth. Sed­i­men­ta­tion smoth­ers and stresses the corals, thereby also threat­en­ing the health of the ma­rine species that in­habit the reefs. For lovers of the life aquatic like Loke Ming, it was time to take ac­tion. In 1987, he teamed up with Fran­cis Lee, then com­modore of the Repub­lic of Sin­ga­pore Yacht Club, and Khoo Soo Seng, then pres­i­dent of the Sin­ga­pore Un­der­wa­ter Fed­er­a­tion, to launch an as­sess­ment of Sin­ga­pore’s co­ral reefs. “Fran­cis had the boats, Soo Seng had the divers, and I was the pres­i­dent of the Sin­ga­pore In­sti­tute of Bi­ol­ogy then, so we had the sci­en­tists,” he ex­plains. They sur­veyed 41 co­ral reefs, and put up a pro­posal to the gov­ern­ment for reef con­ser­va­tion. Sadly at the time, there was no gov­ern­ment agency ded­i­cated to han­dling ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity and this pro­posal was not taken up. It would take more than two decades be­fore a 2009 pro­posal—spear­headed by non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Na­ture So­ci­ety, and aca­demics in­clud­ing Loke Ming—re­sulted in real change. The Na­tional Parks Board (Nparks) had by then added ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity to its port­fo­lio, and led a five-year Com­pre­hen­sive Ma­rine Bio­di­ver­sity Sur­vey. It found that Sin­ga­pore’s waters were home to over 100 species new to science, and also re­dis­cov­ered 10 species thought to have gone lo­cally ex­tinct. In 2014, Nparks launched Sin­ga­pore’s first ma­rine park around Sis­ters’ Is­lands, St John’s Is­land and Pu­lau Tekukor, where rare species of sea­horses, clams and sponges live among co­ral reefs. Ask this grand­fa­ther of two boys how to en­cour­age younger gen­er­a­tions to cherish Sin­ga­pore’s ma­rine her­itage and he sug­gests mak­ing sure that stu­dents un­der­stand the im­por­tance of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment from a young age. More­over, none of the uni­ver­si­ties here of­fer ma­rine bi­ol­ogy as an un­der­grad­u­ate dis­ci­pline, some­thing he be­lieves should change. After all, there are no lack of prob­lems to dive into. Sin­ga­pore’s south­ern water­front is slated for re­de­vel­op­ment, a prime op­por­tu­nity to de­sign bet­ter shore­line struc­tures. “Curved walls can trap wa­ter dur­ing high tide, and act as tidal pools that can sup­port more ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity,” he sug­gests. “We won’t get our old beaches back, but we can still en­hance ma­rine life.” And he is hope­ful that those clear waters of his youth may re­turn some day, if a new gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists grap­ple with the sed­i­men­ta­tion prob­lem. Here’s some mo­ti­va­tion: “The reef we see to­day is not what I saw in the 1970s; the species com­po­si­tion has changed, and the phys­i­cal con­di­tions have changed. But there are still more than 200 co­ral species in our waters, which is about a third of the species in South­east Asia. If the wa­ter clar­ity im­proves, the colours of the corals will stand out again.” In other words, there are still trea­sures be­neath our feet. Sin­ga­pore has lost 65 per cent of its co­ral reefs since 1986, in large part due to land recla­ma­tion. But what is left is liv­ing proof of re­mark­able re­silience.

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