Review by agencies to avoid repeat of Kranji land clearance error

Thorough investigation will be conducted, with Kranji findings made public: Minister

Development works have been put on hold on a vegetated plot in Kranji, parts of which were cleared by mistake, as the authorities investigate how the error occurred.

The incident - where greenery on the plot was cleared before environmental studies were completed - has also prompted a review of how agencies work, both internally and with one another, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

"The public service will learn from this and improve," he said, adding that he had instructed all relevant agencies involved in land clearance projects to immediately check and make sure that their project supervision and implementation processes were in order, "so as to avoid any repeat of the mistakes made".

The site was occupied by a former railway line that was originally scrubland where non-native Albizia trees later regrew.

Mr Chan spoke during a virtual press conference also attended by National Development Minister Desmond Lee, as well as JTC chief executive Tan Boon Khai, and Dr Leong Chee Chiew, commissioner of parks and recreation at the National Parks Board (NParks).

Calling the situation "regrettable and deeply concerning", Mr Lee stressed that a thorough investigation would be conducted, with the findings made public.

Mr Joseph Leong, Permanent Secretary for Defence Development and Second Permanent Secretary for Communications and Information, will lead the review of processes, which will take about three months.

Said Mr Chan: "We take a very serious view of this incident. It is clear to us that there were gaps in the way that the project was managed and supervised. And that we must do better."

On Feb 14, aerial footage circulating on social media showed that swathes of the vegetation flanking the Rail Corridor in Sungei Kadut had been cleared.

Two days later, on Feb 16, JTC said that the area had been cleared erroneously by its contractor before the completion of environmental assessments, and that the green patches had been cleared at the end of December.

But satellite footage showed that the land clearance in the area had started earlier, since last March.

JTC clarified yesterday that clearance for the 25ha Agri-Food Innovation Park - which will be part of the larger Sungei Kadut Eco-District - had started last March. Most of this clearance had been approved. But the work was supposed to be done in phases. The land cleared in December had been outside of plots approved for clearance, JTC said.

So far, about 11.9ha of land in the 25ha plot has been cleared. Of this, 4.5ha was cleared mistakenly.

JTC said that as project and site developer, it has overall responsibility for the site. It will look into whether its own officers and the private contractors involved had followed due process, and how JTC can better supervise the various agencies and qualified personnel as they implement the project. All parties have agreed to provide full cooperation, JTC said.

Meanwhile, NParks, which is the custodian of native biodiversity here, will also investigate if there were breaches to the Parks and Trees Act and Wildlife Act.

NParks' Dr Leong said the board's role is to assess requests for tree felling, provide approvals where appropriate, and also look into potential impact on wildlife.

Said Dr Leong: "At this point in time, I need to clarify that as far as NParks goes, we do not make any assumptions on who did what and when... Because our investigation needs to be thorough."

JTC's Mr Tan added: "We do not run away from this responsibility. We will not and nor do we intend to."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Review by agencies to avoid repeat of Kranji land clearance error'. Subscribe