Southern islands at crossroads

Fate of eco-paradise in the balance after fervent champion's departure
Serene Goh, Straits Times 13 Aug 08;

THE vision of the southern islands as an eco-paradise hangs in the balance with the departure of their champion, Mrs Pamelia Lee.

Sentosa Leisure Group (SLG) announced last week that Mrs Lee would be 'stepping aside' as managing director of the six-island cluster after 17 years on the project.

Her last day was July 31. The group's management has yet to announce a successor, or if there would even be one.

Pundits and eco-enthusiasts have raised concerns about whether the next head will share Mrs Lee's passion for nature conservation.

Last year, The Straits Times reported rumours in the tourism industry of a possible third casino to be housed on the islands - Kusu, St John's, the Sisters Islands, Kias, Lazarus and Seringat - perhaps by 2016.

It was a move Mrs Lee opposed. She felt the unspoilt nature of the islands could be preserved while generating revenue through eco-getaways or boutique residences.

When asked, the 66-year-old tourism veteran shied from hints that a difference of opinion had led to her parting ways with the group.

SLG also declined to comment on this at its low-key farewell for Mrs Lee, and remained tight-lipped about plans for the Southern Islands.

It would only say: 'There is no change to how the development is being handled and we will provide an update at an appropriate time.'

Mrs Lee had led efforts to lay the islands' basic infrastructure for development, including reclamation works, island links as well as the construction of a submarine trench for power cables, all completed in 2006.

She told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday that she had hoped to place the project, finally, in the 'gentle hands' of a developer who would undertake construction that would 'fit, not fight' the green environment there, a counterpoint to Sentosa's playground for the masses.

New inhabitants might be happy to walk, ride bicycles and dwell in houses 'no taller than coconut trees', she said, 'or stop and watch a sunset or a hermit crab running on the sand'.

In December 2006, investors voiced concerns that it would be complicated to maintain the islands' pristine environments while generating maximum yields, Mrs Lee said then.

Then in April last year, the Southern Islands' development was put on ice, with little explanation from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). The temples on Kusu and St John's swimming lagoons and trekking routes were left as existing attractions.

More than a year later, this delay has become the reason for Mrs Lee's departure.

With the islands' infrastructure completed, her work is done. Further developments of the islands can proceed only in tandem with a concrete plan from a developer.

The fate of the Southern Islands lies in the hands of SLG's new CEO Mike Barclay. He takes over on Aug 25.

Mrs Lee, a mother of four, moved to Singapore from Hawaii after marrying Dr Lee Suan Yew.

She joined the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board in 1978. In the early 1990s, she began studying the feasibility of developing Sentosa and the Southern Islands.

She will continue working on tourism development. As senior consultant to STB, she will oversee the acquisition and use of the 9th-Century Tang Shipwreck Treasure, a project to showcase Singapore's maritime

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