Farmers affected by Tengah Air Base expansion worried about their future

Project manager Mac Teo, pictured at Koon Lee Nursery. The nursery is one of the six farms which will make way for the expansion of Tengah Air Base.
Project manager Mac Teo, pictured at Koon Lee Nursery. The nursery is one of the six farms which will make way for the expansion of Tengah Air Base. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - For the past 30 years, Mr Mac Teo has lived and grown up on the site of his family's nursery at Lim Chu Kang.

"It's not just a business, but a home to me," said Mr Teo, 41, a project manager at Koon Lee Nursery, which takes up a two-hectare plot of land along Murai Farmway.

On Tuesday morning, he was told by government officers that the family business has to move - in 18 months.

The authorities have acquired its land, along with that of three fish farms, for the expansion of Tengah Air Base. The sites will be handed over by Jan 2019. The four farms will be compensated based on market value for the land at the point of acquisition.

Another two farms - which produce vegetables and eggs - will not have their lease renewed once they expire.

Three of the farms that The Straits Times spoke to expressed surprise and worries about the development.

Mr Bernard Goh, a supervisor at Seven Seas Fisheries at 17 Murai Farmway, said they were taken aback by the news. The farm, which supplies produce like snakehead fish and frogs to wet markets, had about 10 years more on its lease.

"When the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority came for a inspection a few months ago, they even made recommendations for us to increase our productivity by upgrading the water filter and re-designing the ponds. We had already started some works, but there's no use doing that now since we have to move," said Mr Goh, 31.

He also added that the company might have to wind up operations on the farm and focus on its seafood distribution business if they can't find a suitable alternative.

"It's difficult to find a suitable plot of land with the right water quality. Many of the wet market stallholders depend on us for supplies and there are not many local farms around. If we stop farming, they may also be affected."

The Singapore Land Authority, AVA and NParks said they will work closely with the affected owners and assist them in the process. New farm plots for food fish farming will be available in October (2017), while the AVA and NParks will release details on tenders for spaces for ornamental fish farms and nursery land tenders when they are available.

But some of the farmers wonder if they will have enough time to move and start anew at a new site. They have to stop operations by January 2019.

Said Mr Teo: "If we manage to bid for a piece of land tomorrow, we will have enough time to move and set up our business elsewhere. But I'm not confident that we will be able to get a new piece of land in time."

He said that 18 months is too short a time frame to find an alternative site, because of the effort and labour needed to relocate and set everything up from scratch again. His family had invested over $1 million in the business, including land costs and other facilities. It has 10 years left on the lease.

An owner of an affected fish farm in his 60s, who declined to be named, said that he was shocked at the news that he has to move out of his plot in 18 months.

"We were not mentally prepared for this," said the owner. His 1.2 ha tropical fish farm, which exports fish to Europe, has been around for close to 30 years. It has over 10 years left on its lease.

"We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into this. Even if you tell us to move, where can we go to?"

He said that the farmers will be meeting with the authorities in the coming weeks to discuss the issue. "We only just got the news, so it's very uncertain and we are still not sure what we can do."

Choa Chu Kang GRC MP Yee Chia Hsing, whose Nanyang ward is affected by the changes, said he has asked the authorities to compensate the farms fairly.

"Hopefully, the valuation will take into the account the money they have invested into the facilities and land. I have been assured they will try," he said.

additional reporting by Rachel Au-Yong