Debating Crossing the Island

In every Calendar Year, Tembusu College awards prizes for the Best Essay, Best Creative Work and Best Miscellaneous Work to recognise the intellectual achievements of Tembusu students in the University Town College Programme (UTCP). Each category features two winners. This essay by Liew Yung Jun, written for the module Singapore as a ‘Model’ City, was the winner of the Best Essay Prize for the Calendar Year 2021 and is the first of a series of prize-winning essays and other works that Treehouse will be publishing. Treehouse hopes that the publication of these student works will further contribute to the intellectual collective within the college.

As a city-state with a limited land area, should natural heritage be prioritized ahead of national needs in Singapore?

For an island city-state with a land area of 728.3km2 (Singapore Land Authority, 2021), Singapore has a reputation for punching above its weight and being a global centre for technology, finance, education, and trade. To compete with major cities much larger than itself and serve its needs as a nation within an area 0.11% the size of Texas is truly impressive. It can be attributed to years of stable governance and numerous trade-offs in land management. One of the major trade-offs that is often debated upon is the balance between preserving Singapore’s natural heritage and fulfilling Singapore’s many other demands for the use of land. This essay examines a recent conflict between these two interests in order to surface arguments for and against preservation of natural heritage in the face of immediate competing uses for land.

Before we delve into the debate surrounding this topic, it is important to look at what defines Singapore’s natural heritage and how the term is used in Singapore. Singapore is situated in the middle of Southeast Asia, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, with multiple recognised biodiversity hotspots (Hughes, 2017). The rich regional biodiversity is not absent on the island of Singapore. Singapore is estimated to harbour more than 20,000 land-based non-microbial organisms, more than 10,000 non-microbial marine organisms and around 2,200 species of plants (Chong, Tan, & Corlett, 2009; National Parks Board, 2018).  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines natural heritage as “natural features, geological and physiographical formations and delineated areas that constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants and natural sites of value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty” (UNESCO, 1972). The term “natural heritage” is used in newsletter issues published by the National Parks Board (NParks) of Singapore that heavily reference flora and fauna native to Singapore in their natural habitats (Halim & Kobayashi, 2016; Wee, 2018). The National University of Singapore (NUS) offers a module titled, “Natural Heritage of Singapore” in which Singapore’s flora and fauna as well as their habitats are taught and discussed. In the context of comparing competing land uses, natural heritage in this essay will be defined as the native flora and fauna of Singapore and their natural habitats.

The conflict analysed in this essay between preservation of natural heritage and competing land uses is the ongoing planning and construction of Singapore’s Cross Island Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line. The plan for the Cross Island line was first announced by the Singapore government in early 2013. It detailed the Cross Island line as a 50km long MRT line that would cut through the middle of Singapore, providing faster journeys and better access to transportation services to countless neighbourhoods. The Cross Island line would become the longest underground MRT line in Singapore, with 30 stations and interchanges increasing connectivity throughout the country. It would serve as a major catalyst in fulfilling Singapore’s goal of becoming a car-lite society.

However, there was a major trade-off proposed. The line would cut directly under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). This drew a large uproar from environmental groups and nature-loving Singaporeans because the CCNR is Singapore’s largest nature reserve and is home to hundreds of species of native flora and fauna (NParks, 2010). NParks describes the CCNR as a ‘green lung’ of Singapore. Most importantly, the CCNR contains some of Singapore’s last primary forests, one of which the Cross Island line is slated to tunnel under. Primary forests, also known as old-growth forests, are forests that show zero signs of human disturbances (FAO, 2018). They are often the result of more than hundreds of years of untouched wilderness (Liebsch, Marques & Goldenberg, 2008). 

This particular conflict is a prime case study to analyse as it pits the most significant reservoir of Singapore’s natural heritage against a vital development that would benefit millions of citizens. By looking at various stakeholders’ views on this conflict, their arguments, and how this conflict was managed, we can learn much about Singapore’s sentiments and priorities when dealing with the trade-offs between natural heritage and competing land uses.

In response to the controversy surrounding the original plan, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) actively sought to engage with environmental groups to discuss alternatives and mitigating measures to minimise environmental impact if the plan were to go ahead (Tan, 2014). The result was an alternative alignment for the MRT line, which was proposed by the Nature Society of Singapore. This second alignment would not cut into the CCNR, but would skirt along its edges, going through residential areas instead. 

To properly assess the impact on the natural heritage in the area, the government engaged a well-established independent consultancy, Environmental Resources Management (S) Pte Ltd (ERM), to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on both alignments for the MRT route. The EIA examined the existing environment, possible impacts of site investigation, construction, and operation of the Cross Island line. Aspects that were evaluated include effects on “surface water and groundwater, noise vibration, air quality, ecology and biodiversity, visual and cultural heritage, tourism, and recreation”. The EIA concluded that with mitigating measures, the overall impact of the first alignment on natural heritage could be categorised as “moderate”. Interestingly, the second alignment option was also determined to have “moderate” impact on the surrounding neighbourhood (ERM, 2019). This presented a dilemma where neither option seemed to have less impact and forced a choice between which side should bear the impact of the Cross Island line, nature or people.

In 2019, six years after the plan was originally announced, the government decided on adopting the first alignment option, to cut through the CCNR. The decision to prioritise this use of land over unsullied natural heritage was because the government believed the “moderate” impact on natural heritage was justified by lower travel time, ticket fares, energy consumption and reduced disruption to Singaporeans (Menon, 2019). The second alignment would have increased the route length from 4km to 9km, increased travel time by 6 minutes, and cost $2 billion more (Lim, 2016a). With the Cross Island line estimated to serve 600,000 commuters daily, these extra 6 minutes would result in thousands of man-hours of lost productivity. Despite going with the original alignment, the six-year long decision-making process resulted in the introduction of several mitigating measures to reduce the impact on natural heritage. This included reducing the number of soil investigation boreholes, limiting above ground work to park trails, reducing the size of worksites, among other measures (ERM, 2019). Evidently, the government has confidence in the effectiveness of these mitigating measures and their ability to carry out these measures successfully. This case has shown us that the government does not make these decisions lightly and are receptive to concerns from stakeholders. However, it has also shown that the government is willing to justify negatively affecting natural heritage with monetary terms. If even a gazetted nature reserve containing the country’s largest primary forests is not safe from development for national need, then what chance do Singapore’s other sources of natural heritage have? This case becomes a precedent for encroachment of national reserves. This shows that future safeguards put in place to protect natural heritage may become irrelevant when competing with national needs. The government’s stance is clear: prioritise national interests while mitigating effects on natural heritage as much as possible.

Many environmental groups believe that any impact at all to the CCNR is unacceptable (Tan, 2016). With the intrusion of one of the last strongholds of Singapore’s biodiversity, and putting one of Singapore’s rare primary forests at risk, the concerns of these groups are understandably justified. An argument put forward was that natural heritage and biodiversity cannot be quantified in economic terms (Cheng, 2019). How does $2 billion compare to potentially threatening entire species with local extinction? It is arguable that is a small price to pay to protect Singapore’s natural heritage.  Furthermore, with the CCNR near the Upper Thomson Nature Park, environmental groups contended that the MRT route could jeopardise soil stability and the ability of the forest to naturally filter rainwater (Nature Group, 2019). This could pose threats to the marine ecosystem and Singapore’s water supply. In addition, although the impact was quantified as “moderate”, green groups have stated that it is unknown how the ecosystem would react to “moderate” impacts, given the fragile balance of the ecosystem. In essence, trivialising natural heritage could lead to knock-on effects on the ecosystem and incur greater costs in the long run. Lastly, green groups raised concerns on the reliability of the EIS, the effectiveness of mitigating measures, and implementation (Nature Group, 2019). The need to prioritise natural heritage over national needs was argued on the basis that the margin of error for the accuracy of impact assessment and mitigating measures was too low.  If guidelines and regulations are not strictly followed and enforced, there is a possibility of causing irreversible damage to natural heritage.  With the recent case of 4.5 hectares of forest in Kranji accidentally cleared due to human error (Ang, 2021), this is a very valid concern.

Another group of stakeholders that emerged in this debate are the homeowners and households in the area surrounding the CCNR. For them, they have expressed concerns over the second alignment route that would tunnel below their residences and establishments (Lim, 2016). The local resident’s association has voiced strong opposition against the route to tunnel beneath the residential area, even if it means tunnelling through the nature reserve instead. A resident was quoted as saying, “We’d rather the line go through the reserve” (Lim, 2016b). The reason for these sentiments can be largely attributed to two factors. Firstly, some of these residents may be forced to relocate to make way for MRT structures as the second alignment would require MRT structures to be built above ground. Given the prime location of the estate, it is unlikely relocated households will be able to find an equally good location with the acquisition compensation. Furthermore, the social costs in uprooting to a different area are considerable. The loss of social ties in their neighbourhood and increased travel time for children who go to schools in the vicinity would have been trade-offs that relocated residents would have had to bear. The second reason for resisting the second route is that even if the residents had been allowed to stay under this proposal, there would have been significant construction work for at least 5 years in the area. The EIS evaluated there would be a “major” impact on visual amenity for the residents and “moderate” impact from dust and noise due to construction (ERM, 2019). For the last 5 years, residents have already been subject to dust and noise due to construction of another MRT line in the area (Lim, 2016b). If the Cross Island line were to be built in the area, there would be another 5 years of these disturbances to the residents. For this group of stakeholders, national needs triumped over natural heritage when their quality of living was going to be affected. The reaction to the two alignment options has also shown that the government and many Singaporeans are willing to compromise on natural heritage for comfort and convenience. There is a preference shown for nature to bear the negative impacts of development rather than people.

In conclusion, the arguments made for the Cross Island case include high benefit-to-risk ratio and low impact on households compared to alternatives. Arguments against the Cross Island line include the inevitable disturbance of the local ecology, possible unforeseen effects on the ecosystem, and the possible unreliability of mitigation measures. As these arguments represent the main concerns of stakeholders, these arguments are likely to arise in similar cases and thus can be extrapolated to the wider issue of natural heritage versus national need in Singapore. 

I believe that at this point, Singapore’s natural heritage should be prioritised because of the extent of damage that the natural heritage has experienced. With only 0.2% of Singapore’s original primary forest left (Corlett, 1992), we should protect our last vestiges of natural heritage as much as possible. Residential inconveniences might be unpopular, but it hardly compares to the permanent disfiguring of our natural heritage. Singapore’s natural heritage still has much to offer and does not always have to be in conflict with national needs. Instead of planting shrubs and green spaces to fulfil Singapore’s Garden City ambition, conservation of natural heritage can serve a central role. Singapore’s natural heritage is so biodiverse that researchers are still regularly learning more about nature and discovering new species (Sih, 2017). The loss of natural heritage would result in undiscovered knowledge lost forever. For example, cures for diseases might reside in organisms that go extinct before being found. Rightly so, Singapore’s bustling technology and pharmaceutical industries are tapping into nature-based solutions for new innovations. This pursuit is so highly regarded that even specialised centres to research nature-based solutions have been established (Tan, 2020; Kurohi, 2021). The massive potential for learning from natural heritage makes any immediate benefit or inconveniences pale in comparison. We can always search for new avenues of economic gain, but once nature is compromised, we can never restore it back to its original state. Secondary forest plantation and greenery measures are commendable efforts but cannot replace the centuries-old habitats of native flora and fauna.

Feature and feature image by Shawn Ang on Unsplash.

About the author:

Yung Jun is a Mechanical Engineering major trying his best to graduate.


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