SINGAPORE - The patch of Kranji woodland that was wrongfully cleared had been earmarked for future industrial development and comprised mainly unused scrubland left vacant after land of the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu railway line was returned to Singapore in 2011.
Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing told Parliament on Friday (Feb 26) that an environmental impact assessment was not required when planning began in 2019 to develop the site into the Agri-Food Innovation Park, as part of the larger Sungei Kadut Eco-District (Sked) development.
This was because the site is not close to any sensitive nature areas and was dominated by scrubland vegetation, and later non-native Albizia trees.
However, following a change in the building plan in August last year, the National Parks Board (NParks) required environmental studies to be conducted.
CPG corporation, which had been appointed as a planning and design consultant by JTC corporation, had submitted new plans to NParks which included a new drain with discharge and flow into the nearby Sungei Pang Sua.
"As the drain could potentially cause sediments from the site to flow into Sungei Pang Sua, and impact wildlife in the vicinity, NParks instructed JTC and CPG to conduct a fauna baseline study and an Environmental Monitoring and Management Programme," Mr Chan said.
The wrongful felling of trees occurred between late December last year and Jan 13 this year, before the assessment had been completed. Work on the site has been stopped since Jan 13 after a JTC project manager visited it.
The investigations into why the contractor responsible felled the trees without approval is ongoing, said Mr Chan, who was responding to a Parliamentary question by Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) on whether any environmental assessments had been done for the project.
Noting that various other MPs, including Mr Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) and Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC), had asked how the Government will ensure such incidents do not recur, Mr Chan said NParks is separately investigating whether there were breaches of the Parks and Trees Act and the Wildlife Act.
He said the fauna baseline study and the Environmental Monitoring and Management Programme are expected to be completed around April, and the findings will be made public then.
"We can and must do better. As Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, I have instructed all agencies involved in land clearance projects to conduct an immediate check to ensure their project supervision and implementation processes are in order," said Mr Chan.
"Minister Desmond Lee and I have also asked Permanent Secretary Joseph Leong, who is not involved in this matter, to lead a review of the lessons arising from this development at Kranji. In the course of his review, he will consult representatives from the public, private and people sectors."
Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) asked if the Government would consider appointing a lead agency to oversee and coordinate land clearance activities, given that many agencies are involved in works involving greenery.
In response, Mr Chan said Mr Leong, who is the permanent secretary of defence development at the Ministry of Defence, has been tasked with looking into the inter-agency processes and studying how to strengthen them.
But he said this would not necessarily mean adding more processes into the mix.
"At the end of the day, we want a streamlined process whereby there are clear lines of responsibilities for each of the parties involved in any complex project," said Mr Chan.
"We should be careful that in trying to improve the processes and streamline the processes, we do not unnecessarily add on processes that might either diffuse the responsibility or make project coordination even more difficult going forward."
Mr Chan also said he had confidence that Singapore's public service officers will go "above and beyond the call of duty" and look into the incident thoroughly to learn lessons and improve.
He said: "When I speak to the officers in JTC and NParks, and when I look at them in the eye, I know. I have seen in their eyes the fire in their belly that they want to put this right.
"I am sure that even if I have not tasked them to do so, they themselves would want to get it right and improve."
Supplementary questions from MPs
Mr Seah Kian Peng: A stern warning has been issued to the contractor. What does this mean and what are the consequences?
Mr Chan Chun Sing: At this point in time, NParks and JTC will do their investigations and if there are any other wrongdoings uncovered, NParks will have the statutory powers to take the responsible parties to task. The stern warning is not the end.
Mr Xie Yao Quan: On the timing of the announcement by JTC on Feb 16, can the minister provide an explanation on the timeline? It would seem the announcement came after a private citizen first shared about it on social media.
Mr Chan: The error was discovered on Jan 13, and immediately the stop work order was given. We made the information public on Feb 16 because there was public interest in this.
I think our focus from January to February within JTC was to make sure that they can conduct the investigations thoroughly and fairly. We can all understand that once things come up to the public, certain evidence or certain investigations might be prejudiced.
Mr Gerald Giam: The minister said that developers can start planning works while environmental studies are ongoing, but they have to wait for approval before proceeding.
However, if detailed requirements are drawn out and multimillion-dollar tenders are issued before the studies are completed, is there a risk of the clearance of natural vegetation becoming a fait accompli?
Mr Desmond Lee: Our position, from a regulatory and planning point of view, is that works cannot begin until necessary approvals have been obtained.
But ultimately, the developer has to make the call whether it wishes to proceed to call those tenders and, if so, then it runs the risk of having to make major adjustments along the way.