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Tuesday
Feb122013

Faizal Jamal: Environmental Impacts of Singapore's Future Population and Land Use Proposal 

Singapore Nominated MP Faizal Jamal gives her take on possible environmental impacts of the proposed Singapore government policies spelt out in the 2013 White Paper on Population and the Land Use Plan. This is the transcript of her speech delivered at a Singapore Parliamentary Debate.


Singapore, 6 February 2013. Madam Speaker thank you for giving me the opportunity to join in this very important debate.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry –

Not my words but the wise words of Antoine de Saint Exupery, the famed author of The Little Prince. Words, Madam, that to me mirrors just what is wrong with the White Paper.

From the hasty manner in which it is put to Parliament, the tenor and language of the document, as well as the exhortations for Singaporeans to please hurry up and get down to work both in our careers and in our bedrooms, to bracing ourselves for what can only be a more crowded city than it is now, we are asked to collect wood, and it certainly looks like there isn’t a whole lot of sea for us to long for either.

Madam Speaker it is barely a week since the White Paper and the Land Use Plan was announced. To be debating on what is arguably the most significant and far reaching plans for all Singaporeans within such a short space of time is to my mind, not prudent to say the least. 

These are proposals that should be open for public consultations particularly in view of the recent unhappiness over many issues that are now the subject of the White Paper. In fact, the White Paper itself states - ”Singaporeans form the core of our society and the heart of our nation. To be a strong and cohesive society, we must have a strong Singaporean core”. Does this not make it all the more imperative that these proposals be open to public consultations for all Singaporeans? Shouldn’t this serious issue be in fact the subject of the Our SG Conversations so that there is at least a bigger context to all that sharing?

Madam, not only does the White Paper NOT give Singaporeans any longing for the immensity of the sea, the language and tenor speaks more to the head and not to the heart, and I will explain what I mean, and why I think this is a mistake.

It is also based on assumptions that warrant a closer look, from the link between immigration and economic growth, to why it is assumed that an ageing population will be a bad thing.

What alarms me most about the White Paper and the Land Use Plan is the emphasis placed on ‘economic growth’ measured in GDP terms. I know many Ministers have assured the House that this is not the case. Let me explain why I, and many members of the public are not convinced, While there were references to Singapore being ‘liveable lively and well-loved', the tenor of the White Paper is to my mind, utilitarian. It is based on the assumption that our needs, human needs - and in fact I would even go far as to question whether these are even ‘needs’ at all, but rather, ‘wants’ instead - count more than anything else, and that anything that stands in the way has to go. Land, even valuable nature areas, which are in the way, has to go, if humans require it for GDP growth. The words “our population and workforce must support a dynamic economy ' in the White Paper, continues to make Singaporeans feel that we are economic digits rather than individuals whose hopes and aspirations increasingly do not have a whole lot to do with the usual material definition of ‘success’ anymore. 

Madam Speaker, well-being goes beyond GDP growth. It is about fulfilling careers, emotional security, equitable distribution of wealth, affordable housing, healthcare and education, and factors in the existence of places that evoke childhood memories, natural spaces , and access to these places, based on the well-proven understanding that these spaces provide physical, mental and emotional wellness which in turn leads to greater productivity at work and strengthen our bonds with people and the environment. In fact beyond what natural spaces do for our well- being and work productivity, it includes the intangible benefits of nature as free eco service providers by being self-balancing systems for clean air, water and land, that cannot always be defined in monetary terms and therefore cannot always be computed through a GDP paradigm and yet, which offers unmistakeable benefits to our lives.

In a PQ I submitted a few months ago, I asked about the fate of the Sungai Road Second Hand Market. MEWR responded that this has to go by 2016 to make way for the Jalan Besar MRT , commercial and residential purposes. Madam this iconic place has existed in Singapore for more than 50 years, and has become entrenched in the hearts of Singaporeans, even the younger ones today, as a place which, with all its mess and quirkiness, has colour and meaning, and appeals to the heart. The letters to the press that ensued after my PQ, the Facebook posts and even a petition to save it shows that this place that MEWR describes as ‘temporary’ despite its existence since the 1930s - which begs the question just what is the meaning of ‘temporary’ - how people feel about a place. To discount that in the name of development, to me, is decision that comes from the head, and not the heart.

Yesterday Singaporeans were told to heed the government’s call to get married, for women to be mothers and have babies. Being a mother myself, , and a single mum at that, I agree completely about the joys of motherhood, challenges notwithstanding.

Yet not once during the Debate of the last two days did I hear anyone talk about our connection to another Mother, that of Mother Earth. In the midst of all those numbers we were crunching it is astonishing to me Madam, that no mention was made on how all those numbers impact on something bigger than ourselves, the Environment. We act as if all that economic growth, all the companies and foreign talent that we want to entice, all the goodies that we desire in life, all the constructon that will happen, does not in fact come from somewhere and end up somewhere, in the environment. Yet there is no mention in the White Paper about the impact of so many people on our carbon footprint, our food security - which as it stands, we are 90% dependent on outside sources and we all know how vulnerable that makes us - to the higher costs that Singaporeans have to bear in the years ahead as the pressure on energy and water mounts as we race towards a dream GDP.

To explain further what I mean by the White Paper speaking to the head and not the heart, I note with concern the emphasis on the familiar slogan ‘City in a Garden’ and the emphasis in the Land Use Plan 2030, on the word ‘parks’. It seems to me that policy-makers have a different shade of green in mind when they refer to ‘greenery’. By familiar definition, the word ‘parks’ and ‘gardens’ have a different connotation from the meaning of ‘forests’, ‘nature areas’, or ‘nature reserves’, with the implication of the heavy intervention of the human hand in landscaping and shaping such manicured spaces in parks and gardens compared to the designs from nature, with its own sensibilities, intelligence and ability to correct and balance itself, ‘wild’ and unkempt though they may look on the surface.

I especially note with concern the potential disappearance of natural spaces with regards the 50 km Cross Island Line ( CRL). This line begins in Changi and moves westwards through Loyang, Pasir Ris, Hougang. Ang Mo Kio, Sin Ming and through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to Bukit Timah, Clementi, West Coast and Jurong Industrial Estate. The fact that it goes through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve , and I emphasise the term ‘Nature Reserve’ , is a serious concern.

This reserve encloses four large reservoirs – MacRitchie in the south, Upper Peirce and Lower Peirce in the central, west and east, and Upper Seletar in the north. In these areas are the oldest patches and some of the least affected forests, the green lungs of Singapore. 

In these areas also are some rare and endemic species, found not only nowhere else in Singapore but nowhere else in the world. Not for nothing are they given a ‘nature reserve’ status. And yet the CRL proposes to cut through these precious forests. Perhaps because they do not seemingly contribute to GDP growth?

While I understand that the LTA has informed Nature Society there is no decision yet on whether the CRL will be an aboveground or an underground line , and that an environment assessment will be made by joint agencies, I have several questions -

(a) Has any environment impact assessment (EIA) been made no matter how preliminary, to warrant the plan in the first place?

(b) If there had been an EIA no matter how preliminary, who were these agencies involved in the assessment, what were the terms of the commission and their preliminary conclusions, and may the public access this study for the sake of clarity and transparency?

(c) If these proposals pan out, what is of concern is that beyond the MRT line, and with the plans for housing so close to the vicinity, the forest habitat in the central Nature Reserves will deteriorate and become like an island or fortress surrounded by an inhospitable sea of concrete jungle.

When we were fighting to save Bukit Brown last year, we were told then that we are making too much fuss because it is not as if Bukit Brown is a forest to begin with, and it’s not that bad because it is not as if it affects the Nature Reserve.

So a very pertinent and more fundamental question now is, how did the government agencies involved justify the encroachment on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve now, on what is supposed to be areas that are inviolate? Or is nothing inviolate anymore?

Madam Speaker I turn now to our coastal and marine areas. The Land Use Map shows major reclamation taking place in Pulau Tekong and Tuas, and possible changes to Pulau Ubin and the coastlines of Kranji, Mandai, Pasir Ris, Changi and Tanah Merah as well as the Southern Island of Pulau Hantu and Pulau Semakau.

This means that valuable areas of rich native biodiversity like Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin which many Singaporeans have grown to know and love , and the mangroves and mudflats as well as the various small coral reefs and intertidal areas will be lost.

Also, it is noteworthy that in our seas are found dugongs, wild dolphins and even the endangered green turtles and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. 

Shouldn’t these non-humans species count too in our definition of a ‘liveable city’ ? .

Yet, reclamation on such a massive scale will lead to serious environment consequences to all these areas and marine species. It will effectively choke and live-bury fish, corals and marine life in our waters. How will this affect our sea water, our rivers and drinking systems and indeed the liveable city that the White Paper proposes? Is this yet another example of a policy made from the head and not the heart?

Missing in the Land Use Plan was also any mention of planning for climate change and rising seas levels. I note that Singapore's northern shores and Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong, where most of the new developments will occur, lies at the mouth of the massive Johor River. Does the plan take into account the possibility of more rainfall and storms, and how these may change water flows down the Johor River?

Madam Speaker, in view of such massive impact not just on the demographics but also on the land and marine environments, and in the spirit of public engagement which the government has said it welcomes, I call for compulsory Environment Impact Assessments and that these be open to public scrutiny so that there is openness, transparency and public accountability. Having compulsory EIA laws serves government agencies too, which may then defend themselves against any public reproach in the future.

Madam Speaker a couple of weeks ago, together with sustainability consultant Mr Eugene Tay I co- organised an ” Our Singapore Conversation” in collaboration with and support of the OSC Secretariat for members of the green community in what was arguably the biggest gathering of environmental activists from animal welfare to nature lovers to the ‘brown’ issues proponents of waste and water management , from well-known academics to secondary students, from veteran activists to fledgling student-led environment clubs. To a man, and woman, and beyond their individual passion and interest, each and every one of the close to 80 people call for a society based on compassion, justice, graciousness, the ‘kampung spirit’ and for a life that goes beyond the material success that we are so used to hearing. 

We went further and call for such values to be evident not just between human beings but also in our relationship with all sentient beings and with nature. We call for a recognition and acknowledgment that as human beings we need to realise that there is only so much than can be achieved when we put human beings front and centre of everything the way the White Paper has done. It is time that we stop having the notion that natural spaces are good to have but will be set aside ‘ when it is practical to do so’ which is the language of the Land Use Plan as if even nature is an economic digit. It is time that we move away from the anthropocentric view that the White Paper and the Land Use Plan continues to base policies on.

Madam Speaker, only last year in my maiden speech as a newly-minted NMP I had given anecdotal evidence of how my 19 year old polytechnic students learnt to connect to something bigger than themselves and certainly beyond connecting WIFI to their IPads and IPods, as a result of being taken into the forests and other nature spaces, an appreciation of what Singapore offers beyond the shopping malls. They felt a sense of who they are, of place, of identity. Beyond their expressions of awe and delight at discovering the treasures of wild natural spaces that no park or landscaped and manicured lawns can give them, they also expressed feelings of peace and well being in the midst of their harried lives and even a feeling of being spiritual.

Interestingly, these anecdotal examples are given solid findings. For example in the article ‘ When trees die, people die’ dated 22 Jan 2013 of The Atlantic, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan said that nature has apparent restorative ability. Natural scenes, they said, are almost effortlessly able to capture people's attention and lull them into a state where negative thoughts and emotions are overtaken by a positive sense of well-being “. Imagine how much this reduces the burden on our healthcare system and in reducing stress.

I would submit that it is all the more imperative that we leave whatever we have left of such places, well and truly alone.

I would go so far as to say that rather than fit such nature areas into our lifestyle and our wants, that we instead, downsize our wants, and that we learn to co- exist and fit ourselves into these areas for a change.

Madam Speaker, environmentalism is not an interest group; it is the foundation to all else. If there is no environment, there is no economy. If we continue to act as if as if human beings are no more than economic digits, as if humans are the top of the heap and we think we can get away with it, we will continue to be an egocentric society which has cut off its own heart and then attempts to live without it. How is that ‘sustainable’? That to me is the height of insanity.

There is only so much we can plan and manage and do before Nature takes its course. Far better it is then to manage our consumer lifestyles, our quest for ‘economic growth’ to sustainable levels and change our paradigm from a linear, GDP-driven basis to something that is way more humane.

So what would a White Paper that speaks to and from the heart look like?

First of all this White Paper will not even exist until the government addresses the trust issues that has taken a severe beating in recent years. It will repair the relationship with the people and like in all good relationships, it chooses to listen not just with the ears but with the heart.

Then if there is to be a White Paper, this is how it will look like to me, the ordinary Singaporean.

It will make me long for the immensity of the sea. It will present to me a society that is kind, generous in material as well as in spirit, compassionate, believes in and acts upon equality for all, regardless of not just race language and religion, but also gender, political beliefs and sexual orientation, equality for low wage workers both local and foreign. It would speak to me of places I can go in Nature, untouched by the human hand, unmanicured, unlandscaped, because it sees value in the intangibles. It is a White Paper that tells me that it will not tolerate companies which choose the cheap foreign worker option and which treats relationships with workers as mere transactions, because the White Paper understands that there is a bigger humanity issue at stake here, which is that for every company that leaves our shores for another country because we have no more cheap workers, that these same companies will have no compunction in leaving that country, and seek cheap workers elsewhere. The White Paper will therefore consciously choose a different economic paradigm. It would speak to me of building a society that takes only what it needs not what it wants, conscious and aware that every time we take money out of our wallets, we are either choosing to make the world a better place, or making it worse, and therefore it implements policies that understand the impact our choices have on something bigger than ourselves and not just on GDP.

Madam Speaker in the Ancient Egyptian embalming practice, all the organs of the body are taken out of the body and placed in four decorated porcelain jars. All, that is, except two. One is the heart, which is put back in the body because it is believed that it is the most vital organ and the only one that will allow the soul to be taken to the next level of existence. And the other is the brain – and what did the Ancient Egyptians do with it? They throw it away, Why? Because to them it not important at all. 

I suggest that these ancient wise ones have much to teach us about the limitations of thinking from the head, and the true power of being in the heart. We have been very good at thinking with our heads and devising linear systems from our education to our economic systems, that are efficient and which run well. We believe that in all things, only what is ‘practical’ and what can be counted in tangible terms, rules. Along the way we seem to have forgotten that in the end it is about connecting with people, with our natural environment. 

Madam Speaker the public already know this and want to choose a different paradigm .

The time has come for the government to do likewise. We too are going to the next level of our existence in Singapore’s history. It will take great courage to change what no longer works. It is interesting to me that the word ‘courage’ itself comes from the French word ‘ coeur’ which means ‘heart’. I would like to believe that this government has what it takes.

As it stands, speaking for myself and on behalf of many not just in the green community but all right thinking Singaporeans who are increasingly making their voices heard, that there is more to life than GDP, I cannot in all good conscience , endorse the White Paper.

Faizah Jamal
Nominated Member of Parliament
(People and Civic Sector) (Environment and Heritage)
6 February 2013

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