Exchanges over the impact of possible MRT tunnel construction under a nature reserve echo the tensions evident during the Senoko nature debate in 1994 and the Chek Jawa controversy in 2001. Both were similarly characterised as a contest between the intrinsic value of the nation's precious little natural heritage and the intrinsic value of beneficial development in a land-scarce city. To see the Central Catchment Nature Reserve debate in the same light would not be entirely wrong but the larger issue is the handling of tensions when multiple competing interests surface over a major decision yet to be made.
Significantly, it was the green question that served as a catalyst for such wider self-examination by the State. The Senoko case saw a technocratic response to a ground effort to save a nesting ground for 200 bird species - space planners wanted for 17,000 new homes. That was apparently resolved by weighing the pluses and minuses objectively. A different result was possible only if activists could persuade 17,000 housing upgraders to opt out of the waiting list for the sake of the birds. Chek Jawa, less than 10 years later, saw a policy reversal after the facts were deeply contested between a public agency and environmentalists. Tipping the balance were ground surveys by volunteers that saved the biodiversity from being trampled, had it been used for military purposes instead. Having gone a further 15 years down the road, one might ask if the approach of the authorities has changed materially.
Housing, defence and transport are all large imperatives that might dictate an instrumental ordering of competing interests by planners. Yet, after Chek Jawa, even civil service leaders have acknowledged that "Singaporeans want a bigger say in policies… (and) the public sector will have to adapt to these changing circumstances", as a public agency chief had noted. However, in the latest case, the Land Transport Authority left some wondering about its willingness to engage the public, by originally making a crucial environment assessment report available only by appointment at its office, till March 4.
Clearly, the issues raised as a whole go beyond the technical. But by the same token, those against any work under the forest have not given enough weight to the depth of the tunnelling to be done - about 40m underground depending on further analysis. Nature aside, there is a call for homes and businesses to be preserved by avoiding an alternative alignment of the MRT Line that would go around rather than under the nature reserve. There are also issues of longer travelling times and incremental building costs of $2 billion.
The green legacy matters, of course, but the latest debate should also help to clarify broad terms of preservation amid necessary change that are supported by Singaporeans.