A small stretch of the disused KTM railway track in the West brings activists and residents together.
A striped brown bird flutters out from among some tall grass and flies into the distance as we approach. It is a Pintail Snipe, Dr Ho Hua Chew tells us, a bird that likes to frequent marshy places like the one we are trudging through.
We’re at a stretch of greenery between Faber Walk and Faber Terrace, ten minutes into a walk that would take us along what used to be the Jurong Line, part of the disused KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) railway track. It’s a part of Singapore few have seen – lush and tranquil and surprisingly full of birdlife. What’s even more remarkable – the fact that the land around the entire track covers some 173 hectares. That’s roughly three times the size of the Botanic Gardens.
But the fate of the railway land hangs in the balance, and the patch of nature we’re visiting today is now under threat. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) plans to build a road that cuts through the greenery to ease traffic congestion along Jalan Lemping, which connects to Commonwealth Avenue West. It’s a decision some are desperately trying to reverse. Dr Ho, an executive member of the Nature Society, is one of several co-authors of a proposal (download the pdf :TheGreenCorridor101103) to preserve former railway land and convert it into what’s being described as a “Green Corridor”. Residents of Faber Walk and Faber Terrace where the Jurong Line cuts through have also rallied to the cause.
Walks are a way for the Nature Society to draw attention to the rich biodiversity of the area. The message we take away at the end of the morning is clear – destroy this land and much of the wildlife will also suffer.
For Dr Ho though, the stakes are even higher. The proposed road won’t just cut into the Jurong Line. Once built, it will also dash his hopes of preserving the KTM track in its entirety.
“The historical value of the landmark is very important,” he says. “This line has made enormous contribution to our industrial development.”
"We weren't consulted"
Among residents of Faber Walk, there’s a deep sense of frustration. They say they were neither consulted, nor informed of the plans for the road. Peter Png tells me he only learned about the proposal on the very night of a meeting between the Residents’ Committee and representatives of the LTA, Urban Renewal Authority (URA) and National Parks Board (NParks). Word spread and according to Png, he and a group of angry residents surprised the LTA by chartering a bus and showing up at the meeting.
Png says they were then told that a survey had been conducted and people affected by the proposed road, consulted.
“We asked them for details of the survey like who they surveyed, the survey questions and the results, but they could not furnish,” Png explains.
The LTA, for its part, maintains that it had met with grassroots leaders, advisers and residents and got positive feedback prior to building the road. ("Faber residents squawk over road plan" ST 2 Mar 2011)
At the end of the exchange, disgruntled residents were given two months to come up with a counter-proposal.
But in a second meeting, this time attended by the Member of Parliament for the constituency Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, the residents were told that the Government would go ahead with its plans.
“Sometimes the decision has to benefit the majority,” Mrs Yu-Foo told a Straits Times reporter. “In future, the land will be developed and the population will grow a few times so it's not just to serve present residents, but it will also have to serve future residents.”
It is unclear what land the MP was referring to. But there are signs it could be the woodlands next to Faber Walk. According to Png, the LTA has hinted that a developer was interested in building a condominium there.
Png, says that based on the size of the plot of land, the new project will at most be a few stories high and will not contribute substantially to a rise in population. He sees the proposed road as an incentive to entice potential developers to build the condo.
As for the argument that something needs to be done to ease congestion, some residents say that traffic along Jalan Lempang is only heavy on weekdays, between 7:05am to 7:25am. That’s when parents drop off their children at the primary school along the road.
It is a hassle some, at least, are willing to endure.
“I’d rather have the inconvenience [of being caught in the jam at Jalan Lempang] so that we can preserve the green,” says Stella Wong, a Faber Walk resident.
And neither will the proposed road solve future problems. In an unpublished letter to the Straits Times, a new Faber Heights resident explains that as the proposed road exit to Commonwealth Avenue West is only fifty meters from Jalan Lemping, it will cause more jam in the already busy road.
A pond sits at a spot where the proposed road will cut through. Until a fence was built behind it recently, the pond served as a resting place for a variety of birds. As many as 30 species of birds were reportedly sighted, including the Yellow Broadbill and the Long-tailed Parakeet, a bird that is endangered around the world, but is thriving in Singapore.
The LTA has said that it plans to work closely with NParks (National Parks) to replace trees affected by the proposed road. But it is almost certain that when constructions starts, the wild birds, which are notoriously sensitive to any man-made disturbances, will never return.
Leaving the disputed area behind, we continue further along the railway line. The landscape gradually changes as we approach the outskirts of Clementi Housing Estate; vegetable patches and fruit farms now take the place of natural vegtation. Dr Ho explains that these crops are cultivated by the residents living in the surrounding block of flats. The authorities tolerate it as long as no permanent fixtures such as wooden fences are built.
Our journey finally ends two hours later at a truss bridge over the Ulu Pandan Canal. I look across the bridge and see a road that leads not into the future, but into the past, a past that the government is eager to jettison for economic growth. But a nation that doesn't remember its past is a nation without a soul.
For now, Dr Ho, the Nature Society and Faber Walk residents are pressing on – writing letters, conducting walks doing what they can in the fervent hope that the government overturns its decision.
Find out more about the Green Corridor group here.