Fifty years ago, two young men graduated from the same pre-university course at Victoria School.
As biology students, Francis Lee and Chou Loke Ming had gone on field trips to the Southern Islands, peering through the clear waters and marvelling at corals shaped like rotund mushrooms or branching like antlers.
Their paths branched too. One went to Britain where he qualified as a "no-good lawyer". The other stayed in Singapore and became a distinguished marine biologist.
Then, the lives of Mr Lee, the lawyer, and Professor Chou, the biologist, converged again on a common cause: marine conservation. Now, the past three decades of their work have contributed to the establishment of Singapore's first marine park, announced earlier this month - a 40ha patch that includes the Sisters' Islands and reefs off nearby St John's Island and Pulau Tekukor.
When Mr Lee was growing up in Siglap, the sea was ever-present. Kelongs dotted the coastline, which had yet to be reclaimed, and fishermen sold the day's catch along Joo Chiat Road. "Jalan Ulu Siglap was named because beyond that it was all jungle," quips Mr Lee, now 68.
When he came back from his studies in London, he found his old neighbourhood transformed. "I was amazed at the speed with which we were executing our land reclamation. It was right on my doorstep," he says.
The young corporate lawyer took up scuba-diving and found the Southern Islands also affected by reclamation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the marine environment here was in dire straits. Massive land reclamation projects silted the once- clear waters around the southern reefs. Sisters' Islands, along with other southern islands earmarked for recreation, were partly reshaped to create artificial lagoons.
Soil from excavations was indiscriminately dumped in the sea, and boats dropped anchor on corals. In all, about 60 per cent of reef cover was lost to development.
Meanwhile, Prof Chou took up scuba-diving, too, to switch his field of study from house lizards to the marine realm. Even in the silty waters, he and his colleagues mapped reefs and saw vast globe- like corals, crinkly ones resembling cabbage leaves, fronds of green and brown algae, and delicate starfish.
Already, a small group of marine conservation advocates was struggling to be heard. At the time, National University of Singapore Professor Leo Tan was a lecturer at the University of Singapore.
"Raffles Lighthouse and Pulau Biola were proposed by the Nature Society and Singapore University in the early 70s to the then Commissioner of Parks and Recreation as a marine park or reserve. I recall the commissioner and a few lecturers from SU visited Raffles Lighthouse for an inspection. I was one of the party," says Prof Tan, now 69.
But the view then was that Parks and Recreation had no jurisdiction over wildlife between high and low tide levels, he adds. The agency later combined with the Nature Reserves Board to form the National Parks Board (NParks).
In the early 1980s, alarmed by what he saw, Mr Lee contacted his old schoolmate, Prof Chou. In 1987, they started the Singapore Reef Conservation Committee, training 200 ecology specialist divers to survey the southern reefs.
Mr Benny Yeo was then chair of the Singapore Underwater Federation's technical committee. The dive group was asked to come up with a training plan for the divers.
Mr Yeo, now 58 and a past Underwater Federation president, started diving in 1972 for the adventure. Then, anything went. "At places like Pulau Hantu, we could shoot fish, and collect corals and shells."
He was "reformed" in the 1980s as world groups like Padi, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, introduced environmental awareness into their training.
The federation's reef ecology training scheme in 1987 sealed the deal by piquing his curiosity, Mr Yeo says. "Divers want something to do. I was bored with going out every weekend just to dive. With the ecology programme, there was an educational part to it."
Month after month, divers would descend into the dim greenish depths, laying several metres of white tape along a reef, counting corals along the line, and measuring the thickness of the sediment. In some places, they found just dead coral rubble. In others, like a patch west of Pulau Semakau, they found reefs two-thirds covered with live corals. There were seagrass beds, sandy flats and mangroves.
By 1990, they had cobbled together enough data for a report, submitted in 1991 to then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and other Cabinet ministers, calling for Semakau, St John's, Hantu and the military's live-firing islands to be conserved as marine parks.
Those reefs were labelled marine nature areas in the 1993 Singapore Green Plan, meaning any proposed development had to be assessed. But the URA's 2003 Master Plan dropped them as nature areas, allowing the option of development.
"The irony was that Singapore led the world at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992," Mr Lee laments, referring to the seminal United Nations meeting on environment and development, chaired by Ambassador Tommy Koh. "But at home, Government felt that (conservation) was too low in the list of priorities to allow it to affect development."
Prof Chou, now 68, adds: "Conservation was an alien language to them."
Meanwhile, nature and dive groups continued with coral relocation and underwater clean-up programmes. They recruited the likes of current Nature Society vice-president Leong Kwok Peng, 57, who got his feet wet relocating corals from Pulau Ayer Chawan to Sentosa when the former was reclaimed for industrial Jurong Island.
And throughout the 2000s, the number of marine enthusiasts who spent their weekends leading dives or guiding seashore walks, such as Ms Ria Tan of wildsingapore.com and Ms Debby Ng of popular dive site Hantu Bloggers, also grew.
In the early 2000s, Mr Lee and former Nominated Member of Parliament Edwin Khew outlined a bare-bones marine conservation plan that built on the 1991 proposal, and sent it to the Government's Feedback Unit. Mr Lee recalls that it was "courteously received and then lost in the woodwork".
So they had nothing to lose when the International Coral Reef Initiative, an international coral- reef conservation movement, declared 2008 the International Year of the Reef.
Mr Lee and Prof Chou decided to give it another shot. "It is never too late," Prof Chou says. Throughout the year, they worked with a broad spectrum of civil society groups like the Nature Society, Hantu Bloggers, and NUS academics to come up with the Singapore Blue Plan 2009, a comprehensive masterplan for the marine environment that called for a full marine survey and marine nature reserves. All this was done on their own time, in the evenings and on weekends.
At the Asia Dive Expo in 2009, they presented it to then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and then Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, and sent it to the National Parks Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority and other government agencies. Mr Lee and Prof Chou recall how Mr Mah called a few representatives to the MND offices and, on the spot, told the astonished conservationists that a full-scale marine biodiversity survey would be carried out.
Why the turnaround? The Government's attitude to marine conservation had been changing. In 2003, Singapore and Malaysia went to court over the republic's land reclamation, which Malaysia said would affect its environment and fishermen. Around that time too, says National Biodiversity Centre director Lena Chan, NParks was directed to build its capacity in coastal and marine biodiversity.
"The National Biodiversity Centre was formed in 2006 and was given the remit over both terrestrial and marine conservation," she adds. It is in charge of national conservation policy, and manages a database of relevant research.
Also in place was a new generation of policymakers who understood the need for science-based policy. For instance, National Biodiversity Centre deputy director Karenne Tun did her doctoral work under Prof Chou. The relationship between civil society and Government had also warmed. "Previously it was arm's length," says Mr Leong. "Today, engagement is a bit more intimate."
Blue advocates are relieved about the Sisters' Islands Marine Park, but not quite ready to celebrate.
Mr Yeo, for instance, is concerned that divers will rush to dive at the park and that might have an impact on the reefs. Also, he cautions, there are strong currents between the two Sisters.
Mr Lee feels Singapore needs a systemic plan for marine conservation, instead of ad-hoc conservation of individual areas.
Ms Tan is keeping an eye on possible reclamation of the western islands, outlined in the MND's Land Use Plan last year. These "difficult decisions" are on the horizon, she says. So conservationists must work even harder to build relationships with agencies and policymakers.
Pleased that Singapore will have its first marine park, Prof Leo Tan says he is "edified that this has come to pass".
"The tensions between economic development and conservation will always be there," he adds. "We just have to soldier on."
As for the lawyer who returned to his first love at sea, Mr Lee says his four children are also avid divers, and the oldest of his six grandchildren is a junior diver.
"I want them to inherit this natural marine heritage - not from me, but from Singapore," he adds. "The task of protecting God's creation is never done, and I hope that my grandchildren will have a vibrant marine ecosystem to inherit."
This article was first published on July 27 2014.
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