Were the trees at ministers’ rented estates cleared with permission and by whom?

Were the trees at ministers’ rented estates cleared with permission and by whom?

Recent social media posts by Reform Party Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam have sparked a public discourse regarding the residences of Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan.

Both ministers are confirmed to have been residing in colonial bungalows along Ridout Road managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which Mr Shanmugam oversees in his capacity as Minister for Law.

Mr Jeyaretnam’s posts questioned the fairness of the auction process for these bungalows, asking if the ministers were “paying less than the fair market value” and called on SLA to “shed some light” on the matter.

According to SLA data, the total size of combined lots 24,26,31 Ridout Road is approximately 525,171.19 square feet. For perspective on size, Dr Balakrishnan’s residence spans about two football fields, while Mr Shanmugam’s residence is an estimated three and a half football fields.

Beyond the issue of how some netizens view the size and value of these bungalows being occupied by a politician as being ostentatious, an environmental concern arises from the apparent reduction of greenery in these estates.

Satellite images indicate that a significant number of trees were cut down after the ministers moved in. Mr Shanmugam moved in June 2018 and Dr Balakrishnan in October 2019.

In fact, based on the 2019 satellite image of the 26 Ridout Road estate, it can be observed that most of the trees were felled. However, some were subsequently replanted on the estate.

There are around 500 colonial bungalows remaining in Singapore today which are managed by SLA which rents out for commercial and residential purposes.

Out of these, 262 residential State black and white (B&W) bungalows exceed 20,000 square feet in land area.

As of 21 July 2022, 236 of these residential State B&W bungalows were tenanted, with a median land size of about 38,000 square feet and a median rental of about S$13,000 per month. These bungalows are typically leased on two or three-year terms.

Given that these colonial bungalows, built between the late 19th century and the pre-war era of the 1930s, are typically surrounded by mature trees, some possibly a century old or more, the situation raises questions about the conservation status of these trees.

Notably, the Heritage Tree Scheme was officially launched in 2002 by Vivian Balakrishnan, then Minister of State for National Development.

The scheme allows anyone to recommend a tree for designation as a “heritage tree”, providing it meets specific criteria, including a trunk circumference of more than 5 meters and possessing significant botanical, social, historical, cultural, or aesthetic value.

Heritage trees located within areas managed by NParks are protected under the Parks and Trees Act and the National Parks Board Act. The felling of a mature tree with a girth exceeding 1 meter without prior approval from the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, could result in a maximum fine of S$50,000.

Therefore, several critical questions could be raised during the upcoming July Parliament sitting over the estate.

Did the trees cut down at the ministers’ residences have conservation status? If so, was approval sought for their removal, and who gave this approval? Were the approvals, if any, backed by independent assessments?

Answers from the Singapore Land Authority or the Ministers are eagerly anticipated.

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