Archive for October, 2012

A Forest Worth Fighting For (II)

This post is a follow up to

A Forest Worth Fighting For (I).

It comes a week late >< as I was busy with army stuff last weekend, and more feedback was being gathered.

Ok so first, my thoughts.

Honestly when this whole thing first started out I wasn’t too optimistic. After all, when it comes to preserving green patches, fights have to be chosen carefully. If one place is preserved, another will have to go – it is not practical or pragmatic to save every patch. Thus the “value” (be it accessibility, diversity, history etc.) of green spaces have to be weighed out before a decision is made to save one, or any at all.

Considering many such cases before the Pasir Ris Greenbelt, spaces that had very good reasons for saving going for them still lost (apart from biodiversity, Bukit Brown had rich cultural and historical value going for it) in spite of them, so what makes Pasir Ris different (or any more worth saving?). This also matters when the relevant agencies need to validate their reasons if they choose to leave the greenbelt alone (questions such as “how come the government can afford to preserve Pasir Ris but not Bukit Brown?” may arise), though granted many other factors (such as the eventual land use and locations) aside from the value the green spaces offer have to be taken into account.

As such when fighting this battle, aside from the biodiversity, I felt the “community” perspective and social aspects were important to emphasize, how it brings Pasir Ris West together, what the forest does for the residents here.  There were comments on how “This isn’t a nature reserve” and how nature reserves are where biodiversity are preserved, but I feel that the fact that it ISN’T a nature reserve does not make it less valuable. In most cases, nature reserves such as Bukit Timah Nature Reserve are places people who seek reprieve from city life, who yearn for some nature go to, with the objective of visiting nature in mind. They take the time to intentionally go there to enjoy nature. The greenbelt, in this sense, is different. Residents use the path in the greenbelt as a shortcut from the HDBs to the park/housing estate and vice versa, and because of constant exposure to the greenery over time, grow to appreciate the unregulated wilderness (in contrast to the manicured parks). While it may not be as rich in biodiversity as a nature reserve, the greenbelt has value in its location and accessibility.

Ming Kai, who is awesome with orthopterans (grasshoppers and friends), has this to say (taken from his facebook status, with permission):

An endangered species or endemic species will not stop the authorities from developing a land ‘for’ the people. The majority of the people will not accept that a so called ‘lower’ animal deserves the land more than human. But let’s not give up. Let’s not stop there and moan over it. Let’s document all we can – new species, endangered species, rare species, and common species. Let’s publish all we document, and by doing so, we immortalise the land that is lost and species that are exterminated. Then one day, our children or grandchildren will realise what we could have saved but that which we had lost because of OUR short-sighted folly. And maybe, just maybe, they will learn to regret the past and treasure their future. We did it like how we saved Lower Pierce and Chek Jewa. The future generations will have their moments.

Abel, a close and childhood friend of mine who also grew up in Pasir Ris and helped with the greenbelt efforts, hopes for the best but isn’t too optimistic either, and offers some not-so-nice sounding but good and valid afterthoughts. Taken from an online conversation, with permission:

“Okay well, any sort of urban development at all requires us to clear green areas, it’s a simple fact.

Due to this, we can’t possibly save every single piece of forest or woodland. After all, if we refused to develop over natural areas entirely, cities would quite simply not exist.

Now I wouldn’t want to go into whether urbanisation is inherently evil or something, but I think only a misguided extremist would absolutely condemn urbanisation in all its myriad forms and degrees.

Ergo, I believe it is reasonable, necessary, and brings about a net good to clear some green areas for development. The issue then becomes one of, which ones do we develop, and which ones do we keep?

Unfortunately, it is my belief that the Pasir Ris woodlands, as of yet, are unable to fulfill any crucial criterion for it to be kept.

  • Firstly, Singapore is land scarce. this might seem like a cop-out sometimes, but it is simply an unfortunate truth of our island nation. You may dislike it, but whatever the case, people like you and I who live in this nation NEED to use land

  • Secondly, the Pasir Ris woodlands is relatively small. Whilst some would argue that it being such a “small piece of forest” is precisely why it should be trivial to save it, due to its minimal utilisation of land, the issue here is not so much the space it occupies, but that the value of the space it occupies is therefore more valuable for development as opposed to its value as a green area. For the most part, the area has already been sold off, and there is little we can do about it. the remaining patch of forest simply does not possess the same kind of capacity to sustain biodiversity as a large contiguous area. It has after all, been demonstrated fairly often how fragmented areas of forest simply do not provide a conducive environment for macro-organisms to thrive.
  • Lastly, the pasir ris woodlands is unfortunately, mundane. I say this in the sense that it is simply one piece woodland amongst many other similar areas like itself. Unless it can proven that the woodlands possesses any unique forms of wildlife that are otherwise rare or nonexistent (and i don’t mean to say that any presence of an endangered species qualifies mind you, but that it must prove to be an environment uniquely capable of sustaining said species in a non-trivial manner) or that the woodlands otherwise represent a unique nature area (and not in the sense that it is among the last pieces of woodland within pasir ris, but in the sense that they represent a unique, rare, or otherwise unrepresented natural environment)

Also, at 30 years the forest isn’t really that old, and that frankly, it is not unreasonable for the government to say “we’ll make another green area elsewhere”. It’s unfortunate and in a less land scarce nation, or an otherwise ideal society, perhaps but not here, not now, and not for this piece of woodland.”

Lastly, my father sent me an e-mail with his thoughts on the issue, how he’s happy that we now have a more discerning citizenry, how we chose the right approach when bringing the issue up the the government – in an objective, non-confrontational way, trying to work together on the issue rather than taking a “us against them” stand.

The whole episode of the Green Belt has generated much thoughts. The hearing with MND on the issue provided fresh and much needed perspectives. Notwithstanding the fact that it is a local or site issue that may not represent a national or holistic concern, nor warrants significant priority amidst the range of more pressing national agendas, the issue does represent an emerging concern amongst the educationally mature and discerning citizenry. Understanding that there were similar appeals from different geographical representations and communities in Singapore coupled with the recent activism about conservation, preservation and environmental sustainability, the evidence is apparent of the growing awareness and advocacy.

However, what may be different is the way and approach that the residents of Pasir Ris have taken. The appeal is a civil one, removed from the positional contest, digging of ideological trenches and polarization of the issues. It is discussed within the context of a larger social argument beyond the ecological merits and benefits. The green belt helps to define the unique character of our town and how we embrace Pasir Ris as our HOME. The special way this little patch of green has endeared all its population, nature and man collectively, in fostering a harmonious quality of life further strengthen the conviction and commitment to its preservation. The engagement with the authorities and policy actors takes the form of a mature and sensible dialogue and exchange of points of views. It is a collaborative and consultative approach with the intent to work together in the interest of the issue. More meshing than clashing. More importantly it should not be a zero-sum game but a win-win for all. The genuine discourse attracts and invites a free flow of ideas, perspectives and authentic conversations that would otherwise be reduced or dismissed by personal or institutional egos and mental models. 

As the Green Voice grew louder and engender greater attention, it is imperative that we do not just echo prevailing trend and practices. It has to be one that is well informed, balanced and contextual. We need to have insights and foresight of the holistic policy landscape. We need deeper discussion and understanding of the central and attending issues. While we remain optimistic, we need at the same time to accept a comprise or conceding to hard pragmatism.

In conclusion, one of the positive takeaways of this event is that our government takes effort to address and listen to the concerns of the people. They went beyond giving a token response – a dialogue was organised, DPM came by door to door to listen to the ground, and the appeal was surfaced to URA and MND for their consideration. These are all positive signs that our government is actually listening and making serious attempts to address problems. It has given us more confidence in our voices being heard. Who would have known individual efforts on our part would garner such a response? DPM had taken more ownership for Pasir Ris West than I expected, his humility and genuine efforts to engage me, a personal e-mail reply and a house visit, have encouraged me and done away with some of my initial cynicism.

Also, while we may not be able to save every green plot, there are lessons and takeaways from every event. If anything I hope people now realise that as the country develops and quality of life becomes more important, the population is becoming more environmentally aware and appreciative of nature, and sometimes, manicured parks just cannot replace the feel of an untouched patch left to grow wild on its own. Every effort is worth it, even if the results are not as we desire, as each effort is another appeal to listen to the green voice and realise that it is no longer a small issue, and should be regarded as an important part of the national conversation.

As said in the previous post, if you have any comments or views of your own, please leave a comment, so I can garner more perspectives and insights to widen the horizons of myself and anyone else reading this and are interested in the issue.


A Forest Worth Fighting For (I)

Recently, the green voice in Singapore has been getting louder, and in the face of rapid urbanization  numerous citizens have banded together, forming individual groups with the purpose of fighting for plots of greenery they treasure and feel should not be lost to development. Bukit Brown, Tanah Merah, Bidadari and Bradell are some, to name a few. While most of these groups have been unsuccessful despite their efforts, I hope the government will take note of this green voice and listen to it, especially in the spirit of “national conversation”.

I, myself, have been involved in one of such efforts, fighting to save the Pasir Ris Greenbelt located between Pasir Ris Drive 3 and Pasir Heights. To those who have read some of my previous posts, I have previously referred to it as the backyard forest.

For this post I will not go into details on the plot and the threat, but rather the entire experience thus far and some thoughts on the issue.

So on the 5th of August, a dialogue was to be held with the DPM Mr Teo Chee Hean and people from the relevant authorities (URA, NParks), to hear out the concerns of residents from Pasir Ris West regarding the proposed conservation of the greenbelt. The turnout was over 200 people, greater than anyone expected, and included not only residents of the Heights and Terrace estates, but also those who lived in the nearby HDBs overlooking the forest. As the first few people spoke, more and more residents decided to speak up, and the atmosphere was one of great passion and unity. The forest had brought everyone together to fight for a common cause.

I spoke second during the questions and comments, with a script I had prepared about an hour before. (If you’re interested, you can read it here)

My father spoke after me, expressing how he was proud of me, and how he was inspired by my passion as well as everyone who had turned up that day to support the cause as well. That was honestly quite touching (I teared).

Unfortunately, DPM was unable to make it due to circumstance which was no fault of his, and was unable to witness the proceedings that day. For this reason we were told a second dialogue would be held, at which the DPM’s presence would be definite. However after a month of waiting we received no news from any authority on when this dialogue would be held.

Quite a while later, I found out that the DPM and the other MPs for the constituency would be having a post-national day rally dialogue on the 16 of September, and my dad and I, together with some other members of the greenbelt committee decided to attend to see if our concerns could be highlighted once again. This happened with some urgency, as some clearing of the forest had started despite a the lack of a clear conclusion that was to be given to us. Thus I wrote an e-mail to the DPM directly to request a follow-up, as well as to convey the feelings and atmosphere I experienced that day which I felt would be hard for him to witness first-hand as these “heat 0f the moment” feels are hard to replicate.

(You can read the e-mail here)

At the dialogue however, my dad and I decided it was not the right platform for us to bring up the issue (only ourselves and the other greenbelt comm members non-RC), so we expressed that during the comments and left before the end of the session.

Just two days after, I received a reply from the DPM himself (I really appreciate the fact that he took the time to reply personally), saying how he remembered us from the Post National Day dialogue, and giving a rather vague reply that alluded to the importance of balancing conservation and development, and that in the future I would need a place to live too.

So.. I replied that weekend.

Dear Mr Teo,

I received your reply with much gratitude, and i apologize for not having replied earlier, due to the fact that i am a stay-in personnel and internet connection is limited in camp.
Thank you for taking the time to reply to my e-mail personally, your anecdotes of old pasir ris have given me new insights. Your email reply also warms my heart to know that every individual voice is heard and responded to. 
I know that my conviction and commitment to preserve the little patch of green belt maybe less significant compared to the larger and more pressing issues of the country (as I gathered from your recent dialogue with the grassroots organizations), however, I am deeply inspired by you taking time and effort to take note of our views. I look forward to meeting you in person some day.
Well who would’ve thought that some day would come a week later!
So on Wednesday evening when i called home, my dad informed me that the RC chairman had dropped by to inform us (and all residents of Pasir Ris Heights) that the DPM would be visiting houses along the street on Saturday morning. While we were initially unsure of the agenda of his visit, we decided that it would be a good time to remind him of the issue still.
Saturday came, and since my house is near the end of the street, by the time the DPM came to our place most of the other residents concerned about the greenbelt had also gathered around/in our place. We invited him in, and even though he (very likely) knew he was about to be cornered with questions regarding the development of the woodland, he gamely accepted anyway.
In my living room, Mr Teo listened to all the concerns raised, and patiently discussed the issue with all of us over mooncakes and tea.  Once again, he brought up the point of a balanced national progress, but assured us that the issue will be discussed with the URA.
I thank DPM Teo Chee Hean for taking time off his busy Saturday morning to visit the residents and listen to our concerns, and feel this is very much in the spirit of national conversation. I also acknowledge the fact that he may not be the best authority in answering our questions on protection of endangered species of birds and the flora and fauna nor was he able to give us an answer to our appeal. While the situation at this point seems rather bleak, we are hopeful and will continue the conversation.
I will follow up with “A Forest Worth Fighting For (II)” next weekend, where I will post my views, as well as the views of others regarding the issue of conservation of natural areas VS development. Topics such as what makes a place worth saving and what can be done to buffer the negative impacts should an area be lost will be discussed.
If you have any comments or views of your own, please leave a comment, so I can garner more perspectives for a more insightful post! Feel free to be as positive or negative as you want. Thanks!