Nature is an important buffer against climate change, and in order to safeguard Singapore's climate resilience, decisions to clear land and forest cover are not taken lightly, Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said in Parliament yesterday.
Additionally, because of its small size, Singapore must continue to be judicious with land use to meet its needs as a city and country, said Mr Lee, who is also Minister for Social and Family Development.
"Our small size means that our land and resources are finite, and the tensions and trade-offs for us when it comes to land use are magnified many times compared to larger countries," he said during the debate on the Ministry of National Development's (MND) budget.
"Any decision to clear land and forest cover is not taken lightly," Mr Lee said. "It is a decision we make after very careful deliberation and inter-agency discussion, taking into account Singaporeans' needs and the trade-offs involved."
He cited the case of Singapore's newest Housing Board town, Tengah. This 700ha area was billed as a "forest town" but has since drawn flak for causing significant deforestation in the area. "Tengah was needed to provide homes over the next two decades for 42,000 families, and jobs for more than 20,000 people as the town develops progressively," Mr Lee said, citing "difficult trade-offs" that had to be made.
Making these decisions would ensure that future generations have a place to live.
Mr Lee also responded to a question from Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) on who would assess the potential environmental impact of a project and how it would be done, and who would ascertain if further studies were required.
Mr Ng also called for consultants in charge of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to file their final reports to the authorities to ensure their impartiality, and for the ministry to make EIAs public after removing sensitive data concerning matters of national security.
Mr Lee said: "We work to ensure that when development does take place, proposals are thoroughly examined for any potential environmental impacts."
The EIAs, he said, cover all nature reserves and nature areas, as well as additional sensitive, marine and coastal areas.
"Those who propose development close to these areas are required to consult our technical agencies on their plans together with URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) and MND," Mr Lee said, adding that the Government takes a prudent approach to this consultation process.
Several agencies - the National Parks Board, Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, Maritime and Port Authority, and National Environment Agency - assess these reports, Mr Lee said. Developers will be asked to conduct a further environmental study if the authorities have reason to believe a project may significantly impact the environment.
"We would like to assure the Member that studies are undertaken in an independent and objective manner, by specialists who have every interest to maintain their professional standing," Mr Lee said. "We will make the findings of such environmental impact assessments publicly available, unless specific considerations require otherwise."