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 (KTM) railway line was returned to Singapore in 2011.
But fast-growing, non-native albizia trees had sprouted there over the years.
Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing told Parliament yesterday 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 development.
However, following a change in the building plan in August last year, which included a new drain with discharge and flow into the nearby Sungei Pangsua, the National Parks Board (NParks) instructed JTC Corporation and its consultant CPG to conduct a fauna baseline study and environmental monitoring and management programme (EMMP), said Mr Chan.
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.
Mr Chan was responding to Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) on whether any environmental assessments had been done for the project.
Noting that several 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 if there were breaches of the Parks and Trees Act and the Wildlife Act.
He said the fauna baseline study and the EMMP 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."
But he added: "We should be careful that in trying to improve... 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.