Remembering Chek Jawa and land politics


Remember how the 377a battle was fought? I signed the petition, excited by the thought that Singapore might just start to re-gravitate itself in cultural change. We were still steps behind in terms of freedom of speech because it had to take a HUGE concerted effort like this for it to be heard in Parliment. Interestingly, I really thought like in the past, it would bear the volume of a whimper among the white-shirted men. Instead, it was given due attention and for once, people intellectualised about it.

What a group of big-hearted folks did in Chek Jawa was like the effort in the 377a petition. In fighting Goliath, they took a long-suffering journey to gather enough evidence to prove that reclaiming land over Chek Jawa would be a regretful move. In this instance, they earned a full success in making the government change their minds about destroying the ecosystem in Chek Jawa. At the start, it enchanted me with the exotic images of flagellating sea creatures and anemones. Coupled with the unmistakable and geographically appropriate gamelan overtue, it was almost too pretty for its own good. But little did I know, it had a lot of muscle to flex as the plot thickened. After all, the interviewed except for the Raffles Bio museum manager, looked like a group of peace-loving, non-confrontational nature enthusiasts. Maybe only the Berkeley graduate had some bite in what she expressed. The rest were meek, or so I thought.

The conflict was unveiled without too much lingering on the character establishment. In enough pacing, we were soon led to know of the government's intention to reclaim land over Chek Jawa. And following that, the beginnings of a mammoth act of heroism emerged.
Joseph Lai is a botanist and a young father. He is the one who leads the team in a massive sampling exercise. Basically, what the team of volunteers had to do is to collect samples of living organisms at strategically marked out points on the Chek Jawa site. In each team, they had to mark out a square and start digging for signs of life. Even if you found an endangered speciemen outside the square, you could not harvest it. The rules were so strict that even when the allocated spot was a pile of rocks, that pile of rocks had to be lifted up and the mud below worked upon.
The volunteers were mostly amateurs. I remember Ria Tan, who did the Chek Jawa website. There was also the graduate from Berkeley who was one of the more fervent and persuasive members. There was a gently-persuasive storyteller. There was an old photographer whose scorpion fish sting stole some moments of the film later on. And last but not least, plenty of students, some `aunties', some `uncles', some `Ah Soh's, practically a good cross section of society. Joseph Lai himself exudes a lot of quiet charisma and subtle conviction in his beliefs. He seems the perfect man for the job for his balance of the motivational and technical aspects of leading this challenging operation. Interestingly, filmed against the motifs of sea water and boats, in the darkness of the night against the political resistance behind the entire project, one could be easily reminded of the story of Noah's Ark and its related themes.

The team set out to prepare the instruments of exploration upon arrival at Pulau Ubin. They had little sleep because they had to beat the dawn and avoid the high tide. Not all were properly attired it seemed from the shots. While it was punishing work, it was understandably exciting as well because of the curiosity towards the experiment and the camaraderie of the team. There could be certainly no other reasons why a sizeable number of people were willing to utilize a day of annual leave for muddy labour.
It was for certain, a lot of good spirit reminiscent of school science laboratory lessons. But placed under the perimeters of the documentary and the case it presented, it unsettled me because for a decision to be made in a boardroom, it was such a pain-staking act trying to tilt the balance against people who are just doing their jobs in air-conditioned environments. I really felt `Remember Chek Jawa' planted its plot points of the story shrewdly, making the issue come alive naturally without drawing too much deliberate attention to it. Nothing in the initial splashes of interviews suggested the quiet aggression of this movement. But like how nature has designed living things to be, we all have our self-defense mechanism. The sea anemones would have their traps and don't think fishes can't bite. In an almost allegorical fashion, the data-collecting team soon proved to be a force that bore a valuable lesson for Singaporeans.
Eventually, the government overturned its decision. But it would review the case again in 2012. Things are a little hard to predict at this point but surely greater awareness of the issue would help it in some way. There is a lot of information (I think many thanks to Ria Tan) on this on the internet. So check out these links:
Official site of the film : http://www.chekjawa.net/
Blog site : http://rememberchekjawa.wordpress.com/
NUS site on Chek Jawa : http://www.chekjawa.nus.edu.sg/ (includes a virtual tour) Love the postcards!!!
Sinema Interview with Eric Lim : http://www.sinema.sg/ You can catch it at Sinema right now. Click on the Sinema Old School link in the Sinema website

Lastly, I fondly remember this famous story of a little boy and starfishes on the beach by Loren Eiseley about the power of making an effort. Read the story here.......

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