Kranji woodland illegal clearing: JTC officer, then supervisor fined $30,000 each

Neo Jek Lin (left) was the project manager for the Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park, while Chong Pui Chih was his direct supervisor. PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - An officer and his then supervisor were fined on Wednesday for their role in a conspiracy to clear a part of Kranji woodland before getting approval.

Neo Jek Lin, 44, who was a JTC senior project manager, was fined $30,000 after he pleaded guilty on Nov 4 to three charges under the Parks and Trees Act and a fourth charge under the Wildlife Act.

Chong Pui Chih, 47, a former deputy director with the statutory board, was also fined $30,000. She had earlier pleaded guilty to three charges under the Parks and Trees Act.

Neo and Chong were working on the development of the Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP), which was intended for high-tech farming and research and development activities.  They were part of a quartet of officers from JTC and CPG Consultants who acted in gross violation of requirements.

That resulted in the felling of 362 trees without approval.

The steps to ensure wildlife-related requirements were complied with were also not taken.

District Judge Lee Lit Cheng said on Wednesday that Neo and Chong were acutely aware of the need to comply with wildlife-related requirements, but both agreed to go ahead because they were concerned about delays to the project.

Judge Lee said: “While Neo and Chong acted out of a sense of responsibility towards work entrusted to them, they were misguided in failing to show responsibility towards protecting the environment.”

In sentencing, she noted that while Neo, as the project manager for AFIP, played a more hands-on role on the site, more was expected of Chong due to her seniority.

The Government had announced the development of the Kranji AFIP in March 2019.

A plot of land located in Kranji Close and Kranji Road had been set aside for the development of the park. The 18.4ha site – about the size of 26 football fields – was vacant land that required the felling of existing trees for the planned development.

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JTC was selected as the project owner and development agency for the Kranji AFIP. Neo was appointed project manager, while Chong was his direct supervisor.

Some time before Jan 13, 2021, Neo and Chong conspired with co-accused Jimmy Liu Wing Tim, 63, and Tan See Chee, 64.

Liu and Tan were from CPG, a consultancy responsible for the design and construction work of the Kranji AFIP. Tan was appointed qualified person for the project and Liu the qualified person representative to assist him.

The four conspired to arrange for the trees growing on the land to be cut without approval from the commissioner of parks and recreation.

They were worried the project would be delayed as it would have to satisfy various official requirements.

Under the Parks and Trees Act, cutting down any tree with a girth exceeding 1m that is growing on any vacant land is prohibited unless approval has been obtained from the commissioner.

The 362 trees, all with girths of more than 1m, were felled illegally by contractors after the quartet plotted to concurrently satisfy the wildlife-related requirements. The requirements included measures to safeguard the wildlife, public safety and health, and ecosystems.

The National Parks Board (NParks) had raised concerns that there could be an adverse impact on the environment as a result of construction activities at the site and had detailed the requirements to mitigate this.

The prosecution said the total number of trees that were cut without approval was enormous by any measure, and the exact impact on the environment could not be calculated because the offences took place before any studies were undertaken.

“The approval for them to cut the trees would have eventually been given by NParks, but the harm caused in this case is the failure to allow for proper environmental studies to be done, to ensure wildlife, flora and fauna could be properly managed.”

The 362 trees were felled illegally by contractors after the quartet plotted to concurrently satisfy the wildlife-related requirements. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The unauthorised clearance came to light after aerial photos of the site showing the destruction of the woodland emerged on social media in February 2021.

In March 2022, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, who was previously Minister for Trade and Industry, said in Parliament that the unauthorised clearance occurred between late December 2020 and Jan 13, 2021.

Liu and Tan’s cases are still before the courts.

Those convicted of cutting or damaging a tree with a girth of more than 1m without approval can be fined up to $50,000.

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