The black hole of civic engagement in Singapore

by Kathy Xu

“Imagine a hole suddenly and invasively being drilled into a wall of your home and you are unable to stop it.

You try to speak up and stop whoever is doing it, but whatever comes out of your mouth does not seem to be heard nor understood by the ones drilling away.

The noise of the drill overpowers and muddy water gushes into your home, bringing alongside the others, smaller than you, who have had their smaller homes already destroyed.

You are left feeling helpless and no one seems to be able to hear, understand or care what you, your family, and the other unwilling refugees in your home are trying to say in fear…”

→ Possible scenario for a Singaporean animal living along the fringe of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve area when construction of the Cross Island Line begins.

When I first heard news about the plans to build the Cross Island Line (CRL) through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR) area of Singapore, back in 2013, I got worried.

As a nature lover, I feared the affectations of the primary and secondary forests, as well as the wildlife in the CCNR. Wilson and I were really glad that some nature groups like the NUS Toddycats and the Cicada Trees were conducting guided walks through the MacRitchie forests, in order to get more people to care for the area.

We also signed a petition in 2016, that was to be sent to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to appeal against construction works for the Cross Island Line within the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Between 2013 and 2019, guided nature walks into the MacRitchie reserve area were constantly conducted, and LTA also organised a CRL Working Group engaging the nature groups as well as the residents living on the fringe of the CCNR, separately and within closed door, non-disclosure settings.

Several meetings were conducted and 2 phases of environmental Impact assessments (EIA) were conducted, with inputs by the various nature groups taken into consideration.

visual credits: Love MacRitchie’s LTA EIA summary

The good thing was that LTA was willing to engage and listen to the green groups, and the 2 EIAs were done with strict mitigation measures in place such as drastically reducing the number of boreholes to be drilled for soil assessments of the CCNR.

The bad:

  1. The narrative for the engagement was already framed around which of the 2 options to take for building the CRL line (direct tunneling beneath and through the CCNR or skirting around the CCNR) while ensuring environmental impacts were minimized, NOT whether the CRL should be built across/around the CCNR at all or not.
  2. The CCNR is a national treasure that belongs to every Singaporean, not just the nature groups or the residents living around it. As the lungs of Singapore that naturally helps to mitigate climate change for everyone living on this island, why were the voices of every other Singaporean not consulted on this matter?
  3. Singapore is a democracy, if a nature reserve that should rightfully remain intact and that would bring benefit to all Singaporeans, is going to be be partially cleared (even if minimally and deep beneath), surely the greater public should also have a say in this?
  4. If we allow for one nature reserve in Singapore to be touched minimally, it means we are allowing a precedence to be set that all other nature reserves can be cleared to some extent for development as well, resulting in death of a thousand cuts of Singapore’s crucial green spaces.
  5. Coming back to the picture I painted right at the start, we fight for the rights of marginalized human Singaporeans all the time, we should also fight for the rights of these other marginalized Singaporeans that don’t have a voice but will be affected by the construction works without their consent? Surely our fellow Singaporeans of the pangolins, leopard cats and a myriad other wildlife and micro-habitats deserve to not have their homes disrupted too?

The decision to directly tunnel 70 metres beneath and across the CCNR was announced in December 2019, claiming minimal environmental impacts and promising that mitigation measures will be strictly enforced during construction.

This decision was made through separate engagements and only amongst 2 groups, the nature groups and the residents. When was the general public consulted and where was the platform for them to speak up for the CCNR of which they have a stake in as well?

Civic engagement seems to have been a black hole in democratic Singapore for more than a while now. We have lost countless memory-filled and socially and environmentally beneficial spaces over the decades, in the name of progress.

Lost without any consultation or consideration for the fact that the Singaporean society at large, do own these parts of Singapore too, be it physically, psychologically, socially or emotionally.

Visual created by Qiyun Woo

I remember going to the original red bricked National Library of Singapore (which I later learnt was the library of the people who put in their money as a community to build it for the community) as a teenager, enjoying the beautiful courtyard mired in the worlds of the books I borrowed. The building which has since been torn down to build a meaningless tunnel. This was done without consultation of the people who had pitched in their hard-earned money for it to be built, nor the ones like myself who have enjoyed nostalgic moments of solitude there in my formative years.

By National Library Board, Singapore, Fair use,

Civic engagement is important as a representation of the society, to allow the best versions of ourselves to embody the nation we belong in. If it is selected groups that are believed to be the only stakeholders that are engaged in decision, (decisions that are already framed in a particular way), civic engagement has not happened.

How much more cuts can and should we take as a nation before we realize we have lost too much nature and heritage wise? Let there be an up-swell from the ground to open up more channels for our voices to be heard now.

(Get in touch with the CRL Response Team at [email protected] if you have something to say about the decision to tunnel through the CCNR but feel you don’t have a platform to voice or address it.)

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