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.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Joseph on November 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I have three comments to make.

    Firstly, while I agree that it is not possible to conserve everything, I disagree that every developmental ‘need’ must be met, and it is always a matter of finding land to accommodate that need. Some development needs just have to go unmet just as some conservation needs have to go unmet. Where was the evidence that the international school was necessary and it had to be built in Pasir Ris? Why is there a need to clear forests in order for a good distribution of international schools to be built island-wide. This reasoning may apply to hospitals or even neighbourhood schools, but international schools? Is there no brown field in Singapore that can accommodate the school? What happens if the school is not built at all or not in Pasir Ris? We are required to take the government’s claims at face value. The government used the same approach in the Bukit Brown situation. They claimed the road was necessary but the little evidence they produced to support this claim was weak at best and flimsy and rebuttable at worst.

    Secondly, the government claims that an environmental assessment is unnecessary because their preliminary studies showed the environmental impact did not warrant one. Again, was this claim made open for public scrutiny? I think proper dialogue works, but only if there is greater transparency in the way the government exercises its discretion and makes its decision.

    Lastly, what are the mitigation requirements imposed on the developers of the school? Is it good enough to encourage them to retain the mature trees and encourage them to share their facilities with the local communities. The government would have you believe they are powerless to impose any mandatory requirements at all in such matters.

    The Minister may make house visits to win hearts, but I’d much rather the government makes the claim of the need for the development and the absence of need for a proper EIA more transparent. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify”. Because it is the government that holds the the resources for fact finding and analyses and all sorts of data, it is the government who should make a convincing case for development rather than expect residents to make a convincing case against development. The citizenry should work with the government in making sound environmental decisions, but it seems to me that in Singapore, the government insists that the citizenry must cooperate in a subservient relationship in blindfolds and with their arms tied behind their backs. In such an unequal partnership, it is not surprising that a skewed outcome tends to follow.


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