Meet the stewards of Singapore’s green scene. In the face of a climate crisis whose repercussions are felt even in tiny Singapore, these environmental heroes are stepping up to lead change in the field of conservation and sustainability.
Having grown up watching National Geographic documentaries and movies like Free Willy, Sam Shu Qin was drawn to the sea from a young age. “I would bug my parents to take me to the aquarium at the Underwater World, the beach and the fish farms weekly to look at fish,” the bubbly 32-year-old recalls with a smile. “I’ve always been fascinated by the marine world because there are just so many things to explore.”
She pursued a Bachelor of Science at the School of Biological Sciences in Nanyang Technological University and took up scuba diving, but only found her calling as a marine biologist in her final year of university, when she scored an internship in South Africa to work with great white sharks. “The fieldwork really attracted me then. In my job now, I do a lot of fieldwork and it’s still my favourite part,” says Shu Qin, who is currently a research assistant at the Tropical Marine Science Institute of National University of Singapore. She is working to develop novel and practical methods to restore and rehabilitate coral reefs.
As part of her coral restoration work, Shu Qin dives to plant corals and observe their progress and condition periodically. Often, she returns to find the corals strangled by fishing lines or caught in other traps and rubbish. On one of these dives, she was shocked to discover a washing machine in the water. “We see a lot of illegal dumping but that was the last straw for me,” she says. Together with her co-founder and fellow marine biologist Dr Toh Tai Chong, Shu Qin decided to do her first marine clean-up and Our Singapore Reefs (OSR) was born.
OSR is a community initiative that aims to promote awareness of Singapore’s marine biodiversity, provide a platform for academics, businesses, NGOs and agencies to work together and combat marine debris, as well as empower the public to protect Singapore’s reefs. Since its founding in May 2017, the team and their volunteers have conducted 30 dive clean-ups, 17 clean-up events as well as various public outreach events and programmes. With 587 dive volunteers, OSR has to date retrieved 6,383 pieces of marine debris weighing 1,407.84kg.
“I’m very lucky to have a found a job that combines my love for diving with doing research for a good cause. I’ve also realised that research alone is not enough because a lot of the articles scientists produce are behind a paywall and do not reach the public,” Shu Qin elaborates. “Through OSR, I want to raise awareness of marine debris, help to educate the public and encourage citizen science so they can also help scientists.”
Citizen science involves the participation of the public in organised research endeavours, such as by contributing data. “There is a lack of
data when it comes to marine debris in Singapore, and this really pushes us. Not a lot is being done underwater.”
As important as it is to remove the marine debris, it is just as essential to document it. During clean-ups, OSR and volunteer divers sort the collected debris into categories, then record the data which is uploaded onto an online citizen science database by Project Aware, a global non- profit for ocean protection working with volunteer divers.
Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been tougher to organise marine clean-ups but Shu Qin has continued to reach out to the community through talks and events about twice a month. Last month, she partnered with People’s Association (PA) for a Kayak ’N’ Klean initiative, where volunteers kayak one-on-one with her or with one of the 12 other young environmentalists she invited while clearing the waters.
“It’s a nice little networking session where we get to share more about what we do with the public,” she adds. After kayaking, the environmentalists also had a tea session with PA to explore and discuss how the association can support them in their projects or help the marine environment on a larger scale.
Such initiatives demonstrate Shu Qin’s greater mission of being the bridge that connects various groups – the public, budding environmentalists and government agencies – to build a stronger marine community and bring about change.
She works closely with Friends of Marine Park, an NParks initiative working with community stakeholders in the marine conservation ecosystem, to devise programmes and policies together. “I never imagined that I would be sitting in a government meeting for stakeholders’ engagement where they are discussing a masterplan to develop something and I get to be the voice of the marine community,” says Shu Qin.
In 2019, OSR and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore embarked on a three-year collaboration to promote the importance of Singapore’s marine biodiversity through marine clean-ups and public outreach. “It’s nice to see that these agencies are increasingly involved.”
Shu Qin also recognises the impact her fellow young environmentalists can make, especially through social media, and hopes to empower them. “To me, science should flow down to the public in fun ways. OSR is seen as friendly and approachable – the image we want to portray. We have a great community of young scientists here who can do the same. I want to give them a voice, shine a light on local research and conservation efforts, and help to provide opportunities for others in our marine community.”
(Image of Sam Shu Qin: Fashion Direction: Johnny Khoo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Photography: Joel Low | Fashion Styling: Jacquie Ang | Hair: Jimmy Yap/Kimistry, using Dyson | Make-up: Wee Ming, using Chanel | Photography Assistance: Eddie Teo)
This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.