Image from "Love our MacRitchie Forest"

Cross Island Line debate: LTA’s deafening silence and the reductionist concept of “trade-offs”

There is an ongoing debate about whether the Cross Island Line should cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR), Singapore’s last remaining primary forest, or whether it should take a detour around it. Numerous letters have found their way into the mainstream papers. Some of them make excellent points, others make you wonder if these papers have any self-respect at all. Meanwhile, one Straits Times journalist has blasted the logic behind cutting through the CCNR.

Two observations may be made. One, LTA has provided very little information and remains uninterested in engaging the public. Two, most people continue to unquestioningly believe in the logic of “trade-offs”—the reductionist idea that the more we preserve the environment, the greater the economic cost, and vice versa.

Seemingly uninterested in defending itself or providing the public with accurate details, LTA’s silence has been deafening. When the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was released, some nincompoop thought it would be a good idea to make the hard copy available for public viewing only by appointment. It’s over a thousand pages long, mind you, and no photography was allowed. It was only later that LTA came to its senses and made it available online, but even then, LTA continues to ignore the public, refusing to engage with it apart from its initial press release.

“We have worked closely with nature groups.”

“We have incorporated the valuable views and suggestions of the nature groups.”

“The Government [will] make a considered decision on the CRL alignment that best serves the public interest.”

Okay, we get it. Singaporeans are just here for show and our little debate is an intellectual exercise in futility. The LTA is too good for the trivial views of a bunch of amateurs. Let the real technocrats do the job of technocracy. They’ll tell us when they’ve come to a decision that best serves the public interest. We’ll just suck on our thumbs and get out of the way.

Maybe that’s the way it went for much of Singapore’s post-independence history, but time’s-a-changing. The public now wants to be involved in the decision-making process—the technocrat-in-chief himself recognises that.

Moreover, to assume that the debate over the Cross Island Line can be reduced into a mathematical equation would be a mistake. You cannot put the ‘pros’ on one list and the ‘cons’ on another, then calculate the value of each and see which one is worth more. One must contend with the problem that there are still many things we simply do not know for certain.

For instance, we do not know for certain that cutting through the CCNR would not have unintended side effects that could cause substantial, irreparable damage, in addition to the ones the EIA report has already made us aware of. We do not know what the consequences of that damage might be, both for the forest and for us. And we do not know what chain effects digging under the CCNR might set in motion.

While the EIA report was comprehensive, it does not adequately predict all the risks. In fact, the report itself acknowledges that the success of risk mitigation depends on whether the measures are observed. Past experience tells us that human error is not impossible, and the potential consequences this time are substantial.

Perhaps this best explains the Nature Society’s zero impact policy. Ridicule it all you want, all ye sceptics. Call them tree huggers and “nature lovers”. The fact remains, the environment you live in matters and the any damage to the CCNR can have unforeseen ripple effects. Clean air, water catchment, and temperature regulation are but three of many functions the forest serves; imagine if they were all gone.

Even if it is possible to tie an economic value to some these green benefits, ignoring the uncertainty involved, and add them to the ‘pros’ side of the list, how do you calculate the sense of loss that many Singaporeans would feel if and when their only remaining natural heritage is destroyed? How do you calculate the cost of destroying the biodiversity in the CCNR when you do not yet know what it is worth? No technocrat is up to these tasks and this is why an open debate is necessary. We need to discuss what our goals are and what risks we are willing to take.

More than that, we need to stop thinking in the reductionist terms imposed by a “trade-off” mentality. For one, it perpetuates the fallacy that the two goals are at odds with one another. As countless others have pointed out, the opportunity to serve more residents, as well as the economic value of clean air, water catchment, temperature regulation and even genetic research, may in fact mean that conserving the environment in this instance may yield economic benefits.

In addition, the “trade-off” mentality is used to pit the interests of all Singaporeans (in enjoying faster transport) against the interests of tree huggers (in preserving the environment). Thus Christopher Tan, in excoriating LTA’s failure to consider the potential profits of serving more residents, sees the Nature Society’s primary consideration of preventing the destruction of indigenous flora and fauna as tangential to the debate. It is as if conservation cannot be an intrinsic good for all Singaporeans because only a small group of people actively campaign for it.

However, by relegating the preservation of our natural heritage to the realm of the “nature lovers”, we foreclose debate about the meaning and importance of conservation. Or in other words, by treating it as if conservationism is the special preserve of the tree huggers, we put up a wall between us and them, thereby making it impossible to do any more than merely nod our heads in agreement and sympathise with them from a distance when in fact we really have not had a real discussion at all. As a result, we say it is a pity that the nature lovers will lose their forest but we fail to realise that the loss may actually affect us all, whether we believe it or not. And as a consequence, we may end up realising how much we have lost only when it is too late.

Finally, thinking only in terms of “trade-offs” imposes a false dichotomy between economic progress and environmental conservation that obscures other considerations like the preservation of homes. Although the LTA has yet to make clear how many people would have to leave their homes, the attitude adopted by Mr Tan is disturbing. He dismisses the social cost of uprooting people from their homes by simply saying: “The Singapore Government has never been afraid to acquire land for the larger good. And since it is now paying market rate for properties, the pain of those affected is much less than before.” But not everyone is willing to put a price tag on their history.

Even if the public debate so far has been largely superficial, it is LTA’s unfettered faith in its own prescience that is most disturbing. No government body should elevate itself above the public, presume to know what is best for them, then set the terms all on its own, all rather condescendingly.

Indeed, the questions of what we value more, how much risk we are willing to take and whether we can even put a price tag on our heritage; these are questions that the LTA cannot answer on its own. The decision of whether we should cut through the CCNR is not for the LTA to make alone and it should therefore start engaging the public.

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